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Bill Would Give Tribal Leaders Stake In Managing AZ Conservation Lands

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Thursday, September 15, 2022   

A bill to make tribal governments equal partners with the federal government in managing a pair of Arizona land preserves advanced in the U.S. House Wednesday.

The measure would establish the Great Bend of the Gila and Palo Verde National Conservation Areas, and designate a panel of 13 tribal governments to jointly manage the lands with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Much of the 400,000 acres is considered sacred and ancestral lands by Native Americans.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the bill's sponsor, said he and others have been working on the plan for more than a decade.

"The bill would protect tens of thousands of acres of new conservation lands and wilderness across a landscape dotted with petroglyphs, ancient structures and settlements, and other cultural settlements and monuments," Grijalva outlined.

For the first time, tribal governments and the BLM would share responsibility for protecting the area, considered one of the most culturally significant and ecologically fragile landscapes in the U.S. If Congress approves "conservation" status, the areas would be permanently protected.

Tribal leaders say Native Americans have rarely had a voice in how their lands are managed, often watching careless development destroy iconic archaeological formations and ancestral monuments.

Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, told subcommittee members in the past, tribal lands were often left unprotected against vandalism and destruction.

"Culturally significant places such as these deserve the highest protection," Lewis stressed. "If these areas are vandalized, if sacred places are disrupted, irreversible harm is caused because these areas cannot be replaced."

Skylar Begay, a tribal outreach fellow at Archaeology Southwest, said giving tribal leaders equal status over historic lands is long overdue.

"Allowing the indigenous peoples to access and use the land in traditional ways and be on equal levels with municipal, state, and federal governments will be a small step in righting the wrongs that indigenous peoples have endured," Begay contended.

Disclosure: The Wilderness Society contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Energy Policy, Environmental Justice, and Public Lands/Wilderness. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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