- In the past year there’s been a lot more talk about stakeholder inclusivity in the conservation sector. But how would conservation actually transform its practices?
- Patrick Gonzales-Rogers, the Executive Director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, says increasing the representation of Indigenous peoples in the leadership of conservation institutions would be a good place to start addressing structural issues in the conservation sector as well as improve conservation outcomes.
- Gonzales-Rogers’s views are borne out of a long career working at the intersection of Indigenous rights and natural resources. He ended up as the Executive Director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a consortium of Indigenous nations — the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe — that formed in 2015 to conserve 770,000-hectare (1.9 million-acre) Bears Ears cultural landscape in southeastern Utah.
- Gonzales-Rogers talked about Bears Ears, Indigenous rights, the conservation movement, and more during a February 2021 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
In the past year there’s been a lot more talk about stakeholder inclusivity in the conservation sector. The combination of the social justice movement arising out of George Floyd’s killing in May 2020 and exposés of discriminatory practices has put a brighter spotlight on conservation’s legacies of colonialism and treatment of local and Indigenous communities in and around protected areas, among other issues. But how would conservation actually transform its practices?
Patrick Gonzales-Rogers, the Executive Director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, says increasing the representation of Indigenous peoples in the leadership of conservation institutions would be a good place to start addressing structural issues around rights, race, and consent in the conservation sector.
“If you were to go through the executive staff and the board of directors for seven largest conservation groups, you would find a serious lack of inclusion,” Gonzales-Rogers told Mongabay. “I did a manual count among these groups and found there are over 200 such positions in the seven largest conservation groups. You know many tribal members of the 200 something board members are there? There are six; two of them are mentioned twice.”
“There is a vast dearth of people of color represented on these boards and executive leadership roles. This is important because of corporate governance: this is where objectives are created, assets are aligned, and deliverables are prioritized. So, the more you can get people of color, the more the assets and resources can be realigned to these communities.”
Gonzales-Rogers says that increasing Indigenous representation at the highest level of conservation groups is not only a just thing to do; it would improve conservation outcomes.
“99% of public lands are west of the Mississippi. Almost all of those public lands are within Indian country or intersect against Indian country,” he said. “Organizations recognize that tribes are good land managers. These have some really relevant experience in some of the longest, most storied, and largest contiguous pieces of land in America.”
“Tribes are working board members. They provide a direct insight into what works and what doesn’t work, and they’ve been doing it since time immemorial. And this is true of other kinds of groups of color.”
Gonzales-Rogers’s views are borne out of a long career working at the intersection of Indigenous rights and natural resources. A Native Polynesian and Samoan from Hawai’i, Gonzales-Rogers became associate general counsel to the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee after completing law school. He worked in a variety of roles advancing Native objectives before ending up as the Executive Director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a consortium of Indigenous nations — the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe — that formed in 2015 to conserve 770,000-hectare (1.9 million-acre) Bears Ears cultural landscape in San Juan County in southeastern Utah.
Upon forming, the Coalition immediately submitted a proposal to President Barack Obama seeking the designation of Bears Ears as a national monument. That came when the 547,000-hectare (1.35 million-acre) Bears Ears National Monument was established by presidential proclamation on December 28, 2016. But less than a year later, President Donald Trump reduced its extent by 85% to 81,700 hectares (201,876 acres). Trump’s action provoked public outcry and three lawsuits from the five Coalition tribes, a group of eleven environmental groups, and the clothing company Patagonia. Those suits were consolidated in January 2018.
Today the fate of the Bears Ears National Monument is up in the air, but Gonzales-Rogers says there has been a dramatic shift since Joe Biden won the presidency.
“Now we have a reset. Within days of Biden winning the election and then getting a transitional transition team in place, there was already a reach out,” he said, noting “there was a day-and-night difference in terms of the responsibility and the basic engagement” between the Trump and Biden Administrations.
“Yes, the Bears Ears represents one of the premier public land’s issues. And then when you intersect it against environmental social justice, it’s probably the premier issue because you have the combination of these two big puzzle pieces. But the reflection of what is due to the tribes was not lost on the Biden administration. And there was an immediate kind of change in the complexion, constitution, and comportment on how they were going to engage the tribe.”
Gonzales-Rogers talked about Bears Ears, Indigenous rights, the conservation movement, and more during a February 2021 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
What inspired your interest in nature and natural resource management?
Well, I’m Native Polynesian and Samoan. I’m often asked, “Was there a particular event or moment when I became engaged in the environment or conservation?” I have to say there is no kind of inflection point. It is part of my culture. And so, when I think about these things, the essence of nature and your relationship to it, is one in the same. It is part of your identification as well as part of your culture and your theology.
I tend to not think of it in such a Western bifurcation. I do not think of the “outside” in terms of access to wilderness or conservation. I view it as part of my responsibility, what we call kuleana. I live, one with it and I have a responsibility to it.
Now as to the concept of kuleana, in corporate or Western terms, you could think of it as your portfolio, but really kuleana means your responsibility. And so, everyone within your community, in which we call a lāhui, has a kuleana. And the kuleana is always present.
It means that you have some place to serve and that you take responsibility to do so, wherever that space may be. In this particular time, I happen to be the executive director of the Bears Ears. But in some other kind of situation, I might be tending a field and that is my kuleana. And one is as valid as the other.
This term kuleana means you have a responsibility. The other side of it is accountability. You have to be responsible for your actions and accountable for them. So, this term kuleana is fairly ubiquitous for me in terms of a cultural preset.
Your origin is in the Pacific, but you’re now executive director of the Bears Ears Coalition. How did that come to pass?
It was a long and windy road that most of us have in our career. Through a series of events approximately about 30 or so years ago when I started law school, I ended up at the University of New Mexico. That was in some ways fortuitous, but also the luck of the draw.
There are obviously starkly different things between living in a super verdant lush kind of island paradise, as I’m from Hawaii, versus New Mexico. But culturally there was a lot of transfer in terms of what Native and Indigenous communities were doing. New Mexico is where I met my wife, who is a Native physician.
My first real job out of law school was as associate general counsel to the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee. That job started a three-decade career in Indian law and policy. Although I certainly worked in other Native contexts, including Native Hawaiians, and then in the outer Pacific, I was at one time the senior advisor to the U.S.-affiliated Pacific, which includes American Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Guam, and Saipan. That has given me a fairly robust and well-rounded kind of portfolio in terms of advancing Native objectives.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen between when you got your start three decades until now?
There is much more education and sophistication now in advancing for our federally recognized tribes the Federal trust relationship. There was a time back in the day where people were fairly satisfied with just participating. But we now understand that tribes should be participating in a way that has an equilibrium of parity. And that is to say, they enjoy the affectations of the federal trust relationship, which means the advancement of a political entity with real power.
This is true of tribes, but it’s also true of many communities of color that operate in the conservation and green space. While they were happy to participate, say just 20 or 30 years ago, what they’re asking for now is a much more appreciable and equitable form of participation. And that is to say: “Don’t just include us on the backend, but really center us in part of the decision-making in which we can participate in our own problem-solving.”
Too much of the previous kind of dynamics within the conservation community, while very much steeped in benevolence and probably done in what believed to be correct, was what we view as being as parochial and fraternal. And that’s true of both Indian Country and other BIPOC communities.
You mention benevolence, but there is also a history of outright abuses in conservation’s recent history, including forcing Indigenous peoples off their traditional homelands to create conservation areas. This seems to be changing—forced removal of local peoples is no longer considered acceptable practice in most conservation circles and there’s more discussion about the contributions Indigenous and local communities have made in maintaining healthy and productive ecosystems. Why is conservation changing?
I think a lot of these things have remnants in some of the doctrines that we are not fully conscious that we’re still operating in. For example, the Doctrine of Discovery, which is something I’ve studied a fair amount in a formal academic kind of setting.
The Doctrine of Discovery is from the 13th century. It was a papal bull issued by the Catholic church, which basically divided the world. One part of the world was given to Spain, the other part to Portugal. It is the reason in South America that Brazil speaks Portuguese and most of the rest of South America speaks Spanish. And in the West, why in the Philippines, they speak Spanish and Macau is Portuguese. These demarcations are from the Doctrine of Discovery.
But what you have to remember about this is the church gave these countries license to conquer other entities on two basic premises: If you’re doing it in the name of God, and if you think their operation and utilization of land is contrary to your beliefs. Just that.
It is entirely putative in effect. It is based on, “I don’t like the way you’re farming. I’m going to conquer this in the name of God.” The term is called terra nullius. It basically nullifies your ownership and then unilaterally, in that one single sweep, the country would then occupy this land.
The Doctrine of Discovery profoundly affected two entities: agrarian societies and Indigenous culture. And in some instances, they’re one in the same. The Doctrine of Discovery was the placeholder for Manifest Destiny.
These concepts are still living with us and they’re still cited in court cases.
My point to all of that is there is nothing more putative, provincial, and paternalistic than being a philanthropist. It says, “I am above, I honor those below me, and I throw out some things to help you and assist you, but I do it on my terms.” And until fairly recently, that has been the construction, as well as operation, of the philanthropic community in conjunction with the conservation green community. And so if you look at the largest green and conservation entities, the seven largest of them occupy about 70% of all philanthropic funding. That means hundreds of BIPOC conservation groups fight for the remnants.
We have deferred that large is big and that they’re correct. And in many instances, if you were to really kind of address this from a fairly empirical approach looking at climate change impacts, you would find the most vulnerable and impacted communities are those of color and poor communities. So, in many instances, one in the same.
However, the operation of climate change science has not fully integrated these communities to be part of the decision-making process, which can then result in sustained and more prolonged problem-solving. And so, my point to that is, yes, there are issues of equity inclusion and parity, but if you want to fulfill your mission and really have robust deliverables relative to your own objectives, these communities by necessity have to be at the table. Now with tribes, there’s another level to that. Tribes operate from the federal trust responsibility. So, they’re included with these other BIPOC groups, but also there are political entities and the Federal government owes them a trust responsibility.
So, they’re kind of exacerbated by this whole kind of situation. But I think the national discourse of the last year has proved a fairly profound inflection point on where we’re going with the philanthropic piece and its relationship with the green and conservation space.
Could you elaborate more on that inflection point?
Recent events, which certainly include the death of George Floyd. That tragedy triggered an increase in an awareness of how folks are disenfranchised and it started a dialogue. So, I think people certainly know some of the darker features of an entity like the Sierra Club and John Muir. But part of that is to bring transparency to the actual history and how these communities, even in something as worthwhile as conservation, have been disenfranchised.
So the fact that we can make identification of the history and accept it for what it is, allows us a moment to pivot off of that. Some of that pivot is to have more inclusion. If you were to go through the executive staff and the board of directors for the seven largest conservation groups, you would find a serious lack of inclusion. I did a manual count among these groups and found there are over 200 such positions in the seven largest conservation groups.
You know many tribal members of the 200 something board members are there? There are six, two of them are mentioned twice. There’s only four. You know how many times Leonardo DiCaprio was previously on those seven? Four times. I love the fundraising that DiCaprio has done, but seriously, it’s a slap in the face because tribes are working board members. They provide a direct insight into what works and what doesn’t work, and they’ve been doing it since time immemorial. And this is true of other kinds of groups of color.
99% of public lands are west of the Mississippi. Almost all of those public lands are within Indian country or intersect against Indian country. Tribes manage and operate historically, but as well as now, tens of millions of acres. I note this because the organizations recognize that tribes are good land managers. These have some really relevant experience in some of the longest, most storied, and largest contiguous pieces of land in America.
There is a vast dearth of people of color represented on these boards and executive leadership roles. This is important because of corporate governance: this is where objectives are created, assets are aligned, and deliverables are prioritized. So, the more you can get people of color, the more the assets and resources can be realigned to these communities. And so, these all have a ripple effect on each other.
I live in California where we’ve had a lot of fires lately and people are looking for solutions. On that front, there’s been more discussion about looking at traditional land practices like cultural burns, like those employed by the Yurok tribe. Do you see greater public awareness of traditional land management practices? And are these practices being embraced within entities like the BLM and conservation groups?
Yeah, and it’s not just a cultural perspective. At the end of the day, you have to show that your practice has a particular success: a deliverable that has positive outcomes.
For example, the tribes in the Northwest basically saved the salmon industry through their treaty rights. They saved the salmon industry, not because they had ancestral rights to hunt and fish salmon, they also saved it for the recreational fishermen, who just like to camp on the side of lakes and streams. Because the tribes had the temerity, the gravitas, and the vision assert “We have this right,” it elevated everyone.
I think this is a prime example of tribes not only having an intuition about this, but they have a cultural practice that has been really demonstrated over the last 300 or 400 years. And even in modern day, they have the ability to marry cutting-edge science with traditional practice. And I think this is also true with climate change as well.
What would you like to see more of in conservation or how would you like to see conservation transform as we go forward?
I go back to this point of inclusion. If you are rolling out some kind of software and your prime market is people that use Microsoft, you would go right after that segment from a business proposition. It escapes me why the conservation community has not been more dutiful and not more bold in placing these communities of color where they are part of the actual real decision-making and problem-solving because they’re at the heart of many, many of the situations that are confronting the conservation and green groups.
What I would like to see is much more kind of substance in their executive ranks, as well as their boards. And the reason is their outcomes will be much better. The flip side of it is these people have already paid through blood and treasure to be at this table. They earned this right.
They earned this right well before many of these conservation groups were even a thought. But even again, in benevolence and furtherance as an altruistic endeavor, like a conservation, the ceding of power becomes tricky because they do not want to cede the actual power over. They want to have an input in a way that is polite, in a way that they can put in a box and then put aside.
But, alluding to earlier in the conversation, I think the national discourse is saying, “We have to get over and above that.” And if the discussion and the debate are cantankerous in the beginning, that’s fine because we need to confront all of our histories. But what we really need is to place more of these people at the table.
Look at the executive ranks and the boards of the largest 10 conservation groups and tell me if they look like anything like the communities they serve. I think a reason their outcomes are diluted is because they don’t have the right communities participating in the process.
More conservation groups and philanthropies that work with Indigenous communities are talking about UNDRIP. Do you see UNDRIP as a useful framework for having these conversations?
Well, it’s no surprise. The last time I looked, the countries that did not sign onto UNDRIP were the primary countries that were the recipients of the Doctrine of Discovery. And so, you have these countries that have not signed on to the DRIP, which include the U.S. And so, it’s problematic because they’re saying we are distinct and there are some features that don’t really apply to us. Well, the DRIP is trying to apply a universal international framework. And so, to me, this kind of academic exercise is meant to say, “We don’t want to come under the obligations and the responsibilities.” You see where I’m going with this. This is the kuleana: Here’s my responsibility, and now am I going to be in the position of accepting the obligations of the responsibility.
Because I come from that cultural precept, I can see why these larger kinds of countries, including the U.S., have not fully engaged themselves with the DRIP, because they do not want to assume those responsibilities.
Switching to a more local issue: I’d like to talk about Bears Ears specifically. What effect did the Trump Administration have on the Indigenous Nations’ management and engagement in and around Bears Ears? And what’s the situation now?
This is a great starting point because it gives us a contemporary look into a contemporary issue. So, let’s go back four and a half years. What was I doing? Well, I had just been recruited to come on to the executive team at EPA to be the senior tribal advisor. This was the tail-end of the Obama administration and by the time all of my things got confirmed and they were ready for me, Trump had won the election. I had profound reservations whether I wanted to do this, but I was convinced otherwise that you can still do good by participating. Because I was part of this senior executive team, I got to then meet the first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt.
Scott Pruitt was the former Attorney General of the state of Oklahoma, a state which has a fairly large and appreciable Native population. One of the first things he asked was: “Does the federal trust responsibility extend past the Department of Interior?” It was at that moment I knew I had to leave that administration (EPA). It went from the view where I could maybe ameliorate some of the things that we’re doing, to becoming culpable in what was occurring. So, I left that position.
Shortly thereafter, I was offered the position to be the inaugural director of the Bears Ears. I can tell you the Trump administration entirely failed in their federal trust obligation. Within the federal trust, there’s an administrative duty to consult with tribes, and that consultation has to be made in good faith and pre-decision. That is to say, “You have an issue, let’s talk to tribal leadership.” So, one, you have decision-making from the tribe side and you have decision-makers on the federal side and you have to do it with the concept that nothing has been decided. We gather your input, and that’s not to say we’re going to follow everything you say, but we integrate it in an appreciable way in the decision-making process.
Well, with the Trump administration, in terms of the federal trust responsibility was at once impotent and flaccid. Moreover, they operated from what I consider a fairly transactional and optical approach. That is to say, they wanted to check the box that they did consultation. But in many instances, it was obvious they had already made decisions and they would not place decision-makers in the room with tribal leadership, they would put a mid-level staffer. That is not government to government. The government to government is, “Do you have a person that can actually make the decision-making on this on the other side of the tribes who also can make decisions.” And so, when you have that, you actually have a valid government-to-government relationship. In that aspect, the Trump administration entirely failed.
The other portion about this is the tribes were enumerated as a collaborative manager. Now, when you integrate that against the Federal trust relationship, that means that the Feds would then be basically assisting in the underwriting of creating the land management plan with the tribes. During the Trump administration, because of our litigation, we did not take or did we pursue one cent from the federal government. Not one cent did the tribes of the Bears Ears coalition receive from the Federal government. And it is the reason why we came in partnership with the philanthropic and green communities. Therein lies the tension. In many instances prior to the Bears Ears, the green groups would walk in front of tribes pursuing their own agenda. The conservation groups would be basically the tip of the spear.
However, with Bears Ears, because of the alignment of Sally Jewell, who was then secretary, to bring this to the desk of President Obama, there was no arguing against the tribes’ leadership. The conservation groups would subordinate whatever interests relative to the tribes. It was one of those rare instances where tribes got to really lead the effort, but the relationship with the Trump administration was far less than cordial and basically, it was bifurcated.
Now we have a reset. Within days of Biden winning the election and then getting a transitional transition team in place, there was already a reach out to say, “Hey, we want to talk to you guys.” And there was immediate follow-up with a landing team, “What can we do right now? What are your asks? How can we set up formal meetings?” Thus there was a day-and-night difference in terms of the responsibility and the basic engagement.
Yes, the Bears Ears represents one of the premier public lands issues. And then when you intersect it against environmental social justice, it’s probably the premier issue because you have the combination of these two big puzzle pieces. But the reflection of what is due to the tribes was not lost on the Biden administration. And there was an immediate kind of change in the complexion, constitution, and comportment on how they were going to engage the tribe, and saying, “We not just want your opinions, we want to ask you, how should we do these things? How should we arrange the meetings? Who should be in the room? What timing is good?” So, a complete night-and-day difference in regards to the two administrations.
What would you like to see happen in Bears Ears going forward? What would be an ideal scenario as to how things play out?
Well, it’s two-prong. Obama made a proclamation of about 1.35 million acres. However, with this Biden administration, we have asked to go back to the original 1.9 million acres and to make it permanent. We don’t want to vacillate with a change of administration or a change of political parties, in which this then becomes a ping pong match of when one party is in, they expand and when another party is in, they reduce it.
So those are the two kinds of things that we’re now asking for. We are going to go into a formal consultation. The individual tribes will start next week, and then the Coalition will follow up as a group relative and specific to the land management plan, the week following. So already within five or six weeks of the inauguration, we’ve already made exponentially more progress than the entirety of the last four years with Trump.
I don’t expect that we’ll agree upon everything, but here’s the thing. If I know we’re operating at least on a level playing field, that you’re recognizing tribal sovereignty and all the attributes of the federal trust relationship, then we can engage in a good faith negotiation with much more commonality than things that we disagree, too.
More broadly, what are some things you’d like to see the Biden administration prioritize in terms of Indigenous people’s interests?
Well there’s a great number of things that through both Democratic and Republicans administrations have not been accomplished. One of the primary things is fulfillment of the treaty obligations. These treaty obligations don’t just intersect against land and conservation interests. They also have to do with law enforcement, schools, and medical care.
I think the Indian health service, which is the primary health service to Native people, is funded at about $0.49 to $0.50 on the dollar, which means every year, they run out of money at the halfway point.
Now you have to remember, tribes were put in the corner relative to treaties. Treaties were constructed with a heavy slant towards the interests of the U.S. government. So that is to say, the U.S. got the larger benefit of the deal. In return, tribes gave up tens of millions of acres, and yet the Federal government has never fulfilled in full these treaty obligations. This is not the dynamic that tribes wanted, it was put on them.
And so because of that, I think in the bigger scheme of things, if I could see something really substantial occur out of this administration to tribes, it is the fulfilling to the T of these treaty obligations because they were again made to the benefit of the U.S., and still the U.S. cannot fulfill them.
Going back to the local level, what’s the situation like in terms of the pandemic within the Indigenous Nations around Bears Ears?
So not to entertain and participate in hyperbole, but there was a point this summer that the Navajo Nation was the most impacted population in the world. So, what does that mean? It means a lot of elders – elders that practice the language, that practice the culture, and that would transfer vast amounts of knowledge – were lost.
For the Bears Ears specifically, we had to be respectful that many of the tribes closed down. Most of them are not fully open. Their staffs were reduced or furloughed. And so, we had a hiatus of about five to six months.
Like with the climate change example I mentioned in the beginning, these communities are profoundly affected by these elements and situations that affect all of us. But if you were to look at how it affects them on a retail basis, it’s beyond comprehension in some ways because it’s not just the loss of elders, it’s the loss of community and that legacy that it represents for these communities. And so, we as an organization had to take the time out and really utilize our time and efforts to just support them.
You mentioned the loss of knowledge of the elders who passed away from COVID. Mongabay has reporters all around the world and we’ve often heard that it can be challenging to get young people interested in traditional culture and practices. Is that an issue for the Indigenous Nations around Bears Ears? And if so, are there some strategies for increasing engagement of those younger generations around tradition and culture?
I will say it is a systemic problem. Typically, there are fewer opportunities in our tribal communities. Employment is always a chronic issue. And another component is this issue is that for those that choose to leave the community, they may not come back. One of the ways we’re responding to this to start youth conservation activities. We were supposed to have an inaugural program starting in late spring last year, but that was put off because of COVID.
Our programming was to pair Native youth with Native elders on the landscape. And in that way, they can learn from their own kind of groups.
We hope to reinvigorate and launch a new start date. However, the earliest it will probably occur is the early fall if we get green lights from public health officials.
The issue is true to even rural America: You have a brain drain of people who go to the big city. They see all of the amenities.
But my thing is not everyone can and should return, but hopefully, you do have a core group that sees the value of working in their communities and does return. And I think that’s even truer as I get older. I am not the type to kind of go camp out in the landscape. I much prefer to be at a Ritz Carlton. I’m not going to lie to you.
That said, we all have a role to play and we all have to be authentic to who we are. And that’s what I would ask of any youth, be authentic to who you are. So, if you spend 10 years in San Francisco, that’s fantastic, but there may come a point that you can transfer that knowledge and experience back to where you were raised. And so, what we’re trying to do is give them just a pause, a period of time that they can have a reflection. That you can take these experiences, and there is a place that’s waiting for you. And they want to incorporate both your Western knowledge and your Traditional knowledge.
What advice would you give for someone who wants to be an ally in supporting Indigenous people’s rights?
I think the prevalent and easiest thing you can do is be respectful to these areas. They’re not Disneyland. These are where people practice their theology. This is where they practice their culture.
And the example that I always give is, if you think about the Cathedral of Notre Dame, it’s a titular kind of ode to Gothic architecture, but it’s also placed on this high platform of reference. This is the same thing the Bears Ears is. This is the altar for these people. This is where they practice their religion. And so, the same deference that you would give to a chapel in New England, that’s 200 or 300 years old, you should abide by when you visit and think about the Bears Ears, because this place is not 200 or 300 years old. It has been there from time immemorial, since the beginning of time.
The profundity of it should not be lost on us. And so, respect is the first thing I would say if you support these issues. And I tell our conservation and green partners, “I love you guys. I do.” They’re great partners, but when it’s time to speak the truth about where we are in terms of the inclusion of other populations, I’m not going to hold back and I’m going to speak with my chest about it. And so, I think it tees up the issue in a way that we can now have a more congenial and substantive conversation.