Tribes Fighting Trump Administration Policies That Harm Native Sites

A Utah protest against Trump’s decision to shrink the national monuments     Photo: Rick Bowmer, AP

Three Native American tribes are using litigation, lobbying and protests to push back against Trump administration policies that would damage their lands and their way of life — the Tlingit Tribe is challenging logging in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, native Hawaiians are protesting the building of a telescope on the top of the Mauna Kea volcano, and the Sioux Tribe spent months actively blocking the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. And just two weeks ago, a federal judge in Utah refused the Justice Department’s request to dismiss a lawsuit brought by five tribes over the 2017 decision to cut the size of Bear Ears National Monument.  

Why This Matters:  Native American tribes are uniquely positioned to challenge some of the Trump administration’s most aggressive moves to develop (timber harvest, mining, oil and gas drilling) on federal lands.  Often these cases are thrown out because the plaintiffs (often environmental groups) are found not to have a sufficient “interest” in or connection to the government’s action — but when it comes to the destruction of sacred sites, that argument really does not work.  So while they may not win, they will at least get their day in court.  Physical protests and lobbying, however, may be less effective at stopping the administration’s efforts.  And once these lands and sacred sites are spoiled by development, they cannot be restored.  

Tongass and the Tlingit

The Tlingit oppose the President’s proposal to lift the “Roadless Rule,” a Clinton-era regulation that keeps the development of roads thus in effect protecting the Forest from logging, energy, and mining projects, which, in turn, safeguards their culture.  We recognized a group of women from the Tribe as our “heroes of the week” for their efforts to get Congress to reinstate the Roadless Rule in the Tongass by law.  “The Tongass is our home, is the only home we’ve ever known,” said Wanda Culp, a Tlingit leader who led a group of activists to Washington DC to protest changes to the existing legislation.

Mauna Kea Volcano

The protest over the installation of a telescope is a different sort of controversy. Native Hawaiians have protested the construction for several years because the dormant volcano is a place of worship and prayer, according to the Associated Press, and only the highest-ranking chiefs and priests were allowed to reach the summit.  On the other hand, the spot is important because it sits nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, high above pollution and most clouds, which is the ideal location for this very unique piece of equipment.

Bears Ears Monument

The President reduced the Monument, which was created by former President Barack Obama in 2016, from its original size of 1.35 million acres to only 201,876 acres, arguing that Obama acted unilaterally and unfairly in creating the original monument. The Tribes argue that the reduction has put at risk sacred tribal lands, thereby threatening treasured landscapes and a host of archaeological and historic resources.  Now the case will proceed to arguments on the merits.

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