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Colorado's Native American tribes kept in the dark on Bureau of Land Management decision to move HQ back to D.C.

Mark Duggan

Twice this year, Manuel Heart, the chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, met with new U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Not once, he said, did the first Native American woman to hold a federal Cabinet position mention her plans to move the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters back to Washington, D.C., from Grand Junction.

It’s just the latest disconnect between the federal government and Indigenous people that spans generations, Heart said of the mid-September decision. He doesn’t feel as though he and his people have a seat at the table with the federal government, which in this situation controls the tribe’s hunting, fishing and gathering rights on federal lands and any oil, gas or mineral rights.

Representatives for the Southern Ute Tribe also said they were left out of conversation about the future of the BLM.

“We just have to learn to adapt,” Heart said. “It’s what we’ve been doing for years. Tribes have always had to adapt to whatever the federal government is doing.”

A representative for the U.S. Department of the Interior -- which oversees the BLM -- told The Denver Post that both agencies place a high priority on consultations with tribes but they couldn’t remember whether Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, ever discussed the upcoming relocation with Colorado’s tribes. BLM representatives didn’t respond to requests seeking comment.

Former President Donald Trump announced in 2019 that he would relocate the BLM’s headquarters to Grand Junction, a shift that Peter Ortego, general counsel for the Ute Mountain Utes, viewed with cautious optimism. Too often are his peoples’ wants or needs referred to officials in D.C., where the matter becomes garbled or lost in an “urban perspective,” he said.

The hope was that BLM officials would be more accessible when based in Grand Junction, and better understand the Ute Mountain Utes and other tribes who were forced decades ago into lands across the American West, Ortego said. The majority of the 574 federally recognized tribes live in the West, Heart added, closer to Grand Junction.

“They really need to understand our values and our way of life before they make decisions about our values and our way of life,” Ortego said.

Cutting through red tape

Since 1874, Heart’s tribe has held an agreement with the federal government granting members permission to hunt, fish and gather wood, fruits, vegetables and medicinal plants over 3 million acres -- including BLM land -- in and around southwest Colorado. Families depend on what they can kill, catch and gather there.

The tribe, which has 2,116 members in southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico, negotiates access to those federal lands, but the bureau also serves as an arbiter between the tribe and private property owners, Heart said, adding that the tribe negotiates and communicates with the agency multiple times a year.

BLM officials and Heart’s tribe met at least twice since the Grand Junction relocation -- once to discuss a private land sale that would affect hunting rights, and again when tribal members wanted permission to hunt on a private ranch.

Lindsay Box, spokeswoman for the Southern Ute Tribe, said her people also work often with the BLM. Though the tribe is adept at “navigating through red tape,” federal agencies that deal with Native American tribes are short on resources and staff, which Box said “does significantly delay progress in many tribal communities.”

But the bureau started off on the wrong foot in Grand Junction, Ortego said, because more than 87% of employees in D.C. either resigned or retired. Only three employees currently work out of Grand Junction.

Without staff, the BLM connections, expertise and institutional knowledge are lost, Ortego said. And then the pandemic forced most government business to be conducted online.

“Because of COVID … the dynamic was probably not quite as prevalent as it would have been,” he said.

Even before Congress approved President Joe Biden’s nomination of Haaland, she told the newly elected Sen. John Hickenlooper that she would weigh whether to keep the bureau’s headquarters in Grand Junction.

Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the BLM held a “formal, nationwide consultation” in July about the potential relocation, but said the agency doesn’t disclose which tribes attend nation-to-nation meetings. Transcripts from those meetings don’t exist either, she said.

Transcripts are available from different tribal consultations that the Interior Department held in March, though none of them indicate the bureau’s future was a topic of discussion.

Schwartz initially told The Post that Haaland discussed the “location and function” of the BLM’s headquarters specifically with the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes. But after tribal representatives told The Post that Schwartz was wrong, she said she couldn’t be sure the topic came up.

Heart said Haaland didn’t mention the BLM relocation to him during her July visit to Colorado, nor when he met her in April at Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

Similarly, Box said when members of her tribe met with the secretary in Colorado, she gave “no indication or mention of returning the BLM office in Grand Junction to Washington, D.C.”

“Potentially hazardous decision”

Melvin Baker, chairman of the Southern Ute Tribe, said he doesn’t anticipate the latest reorganization will harm his tribe. Box said the bureau still has an office in Durango.

Tribes will have to continue to negotiate with the BLM, Heart said, but “it would have been good if the Secretary of the Interior had reached out to the tribes and asked us our thoughts. She didn’t really give us a heads up on that, we come to find out after the fact.”

The bureau’s Grand Junction office will remain open, and officials in Colorado like Gov. Jared Polis said they want the presence to grow. But Ortego also doesn’t expect much. The back and forth cost the bureau time and staff, he said, and also strained the federal government’s relationship with tribes

“Any benefit that would have been conferred by having (the BLM) in Grand Junction is now lost,” he said. “(The move) was a potentially hazardous decision either way. I’m not sure which is better now.”

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This story was written in partnership with The Denver Post, through a collaboration powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. KSUT joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 news organizations to share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.

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