U.S. Interior Department to consult with tribal leaders on climate, COVID-19

FILE PHOTO: Ruins of ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings at Butler Wash in Bears Ears National Monument, New Mexico, U.S., October 27, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Interior Department will start consultations with Native American tribal leaders next month on COVID-19, economic security, racial justice and climate change, part of efforts by President Joe Biden to get more tribal input in federal policy deliberations.

Biden issued an executive order on Jan. 26 aimed at strengthening relations between the federal government and Native American tribes.

The Interior Department, which oversees the country’s tribal and federal lands, will be led by New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland, who would become the first Native American to head a cabinet-level agency if she is confirmed by Congress.

Some tribes felt sidelined after major decisions by former President Donald Trump’s administration, such as approving the Dakota Access Pipeline and drastically reducing the size of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah that had been created with input of an inter-tribal council.

A 2019 Government Accountability Office report found serious lapses in outreach to tribes, especially on infrastructure projects.

Native American tribes have also been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic due to health disparities and higher rates of poverty. Under Trump tribes received $8 billion in coronavirus aid but only after major delays caused by a legal dispute.

The consultations will take place by video in the week of March 8.

“Meaningful consultations ensure we center Tribal voices as we address the health, economic, racial justice and climate crises — all of which disproportionately impact American Indian and Alaska Natives,” said Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, the department’s designated Tribal Governance Officer and Deputy Solicitor for Indian Affairs.

Haaland is awaiting her confirmation hearing, which has not yet been scheduled. A few western state Republican senators have said they are likely to oppose her because of her support for policies like the Green New Deal championed by the progressive Left, but she is still expected to have enough support to be confirmed.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Frances Kerry