You can't really fault Ute tribal leaders for being wary of BLM director Pat Shea.
After all, the tribe has a long, litigious history of white governments telling it how to conduct its affairs, most often without any input from tribal members.There has, said Ron Wopsock, chairman of the Utes' governing committee, been a history of mistrust.
"Relationships are not something that can be turned on and off like a switch," Shea admitted, adding it is the BLM's "highest priority to establish nation-to-nation relationships" with all American Indian tribes and thereby foster a new era of cooperation.
Shea, the first BLM director to visit the Uintah and Ouray Ute Reservation, has been hop-scotching across the West in recent months, meeting with various tribal leaders and trying to create that atmosphere of cooperation between the tribes and the federal government.
The Bureau of Land Management in Utah manages the rich oil, gas and mineral reserves on the Ute reservation, as well as the resources of many other tribal nations.
Earlier this week, Shea carried the olive branch to the Uinta Basin where he was warmly welcomed by tribal leaders, who emphasized they are eager to participate in land management decisions affecting their reservation and other lands of historic significance to the Ute people.
But they also used the opportunity to pepper the director with questions for which he had no answers. For example:
- Why does the BLM hold the Ute nation to the same environmental standards for natural resource development that exist for public lands when Ute lands are not public? Shouldn't the Utes be allowed to develop their own lands and manage their own wildlife according to the wishes of tribal members?
- Why does the BLM not involve the tribe in land management plans until after the plans have already been developed?
- And why does the BLM not afford the tribe a greater status in that process than any other interested party that wants to comment? Are they not Ute lands and Ute heritage that are affected?
For example, Wopsock noted there are thousands of Ute and pre-Ute archaeological sites within and adjacent to the reservation that are sacred to Ute peoples. But never has the BLM archaeologist met with elected tribal leaders to discuss the significance of those sites or determine Ute concerns about development in those areas.
"I've never met him (the BLM archaeologist), but I am told he has been there 17 years," Wopsock said.
The questions continued.
- Why does the BLM's current management plan for one huge portion of the reservation not even acknowledge the boundaries of the reservation that were determined by the federal courts? And why has the BLM refused to make that acknowledgment when asked to do so by the tribe? "After 25 years of litigation, it is time the BLM recognize tribal boundaries. It is time they recognize the tribe has its own wildlife management plan that needs to be folded in with the state and federal plans," Wopsock said.
It is time, he said, that federal, state and local governments begin to treat the Utes with the respect due a sovereign nation, which they are.
For the most part, Shea had little response other than to encourage tribal leaders to send their concerns to him in a letter, and to emphasize that today's BLM is not the same as the old BLM.
Shea pledged a new era of cooperation with the Ute nation, promising "we at BLM, and the state as well, are trying to change the way business was done in the past and make it more cooperative and positive rather than antagonistic and divisive.
"In the Uinta Basin, and other parts of Utah, too, there is a long and unfortunate history of antagonism," he said. "We have a lot of history to overcome, but it has to start somewhere."
Part of that initiative was a presidential executive order that mandated federal agencies establish "nation-to-nation" relationships between the U.S. gov-ern-ment and more than 300 American tribes. To that end, the Vernal District of the BLM recently prepared a memorandum of understanding with the Ute tribe. The Utes are currently reviewing the draft.
In the new spirit of cooperation, Shea also promised to create two or three internships for young Utes to work in the BLM office in Vernal, internships to be paid for out of his own Washington, D.C., budget. Currently, no Utes are employed as BLM staff in the Vernal District, even though most of the district encompasses Ute tribal lands.
Given the history of antagonism, can a visit by the BLM director to tribal leaders or a memorandum of understanding or promises of internships make all that much difference in the Uinta Basin?
These moves are certainly first steps, Wopsock said. But the real issue is not one about pledges of cooperation and promises to involve Utes in land management decisions. It's about developing trust and respect - something the Utes say has been in short supply in the Uinta Basin.
And, he added, trust is something that comes through promises kept and respect is something that has to be earned.