When President Trump issued a proclamation in 2017 reducing the size of two national monuments in southern Utah’s canyon country, it seemed only a matter of time before the drilling rigs, bulldozers, and fleets of ATVs would follow. And now the administration has taken a big step in that direction. At the end of August, the White House released plans to allow drilling, mining, grazing, and other uses on lands formerly protected as part of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments.
Rolling Stone has even warned that strip mining could come to Grand Staircase-Escalante. Nineteen companies have already staked mineral claims on portions of about 900,000 acres excised from the monument by Trump’s executive order in December 2017.
That order is still under court challenge.
Writing in the Harvard Law Review, University of Colorado law professor Mark Squillace says there’s no legal precedent for the reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante and other national monuments. The tribes and environmental groups that have challenged the withdrawal have a good case, but as Squillace writes, the last word will come from the federal courts, and predicting the outcome of litigation is always fraught with risk. Besides, the case could grind on for years, with appeals sure to follow. The Bureau of Land Management, however, has plans for the formerly protected lands right now.
The agency’s new acting head, William Perry Pendley, has devoted his professional life to selling off public land. Pendley spent nearly 30 years as head of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, advocating for the transfer of federal lands to state and local control. In fact, he’s still the attorney of record for two Utah counties petitioning the feds to allow “multiple use” on the lands stripped from Grand Staircase-Escalante, including oil and gas development, mining and unrestricted grazing. Pendley only started at BLM in July. Two weeks later, Interior Chief (and former oil and gas lobbyist) David Bernhardt quietly elevated him to the role of acting director.
The appointment came just after Congress recessed for the summer, which as Chris D’Angelo noted in the Huffington Post, placed “a man who detests federal land policy at the helm of a bureau that manages more than one-third of all federal land and 700 million subsurface mineral acres ― all without Pendley having to go through a Senate confirmation process.” Pendley’s interim role lasts until Sept. 30 and could be extended. President Trump has yet to nominate a BLM director for Senate confirmation.
“We know BLM is moving forward with these plans and we have an acting director who has a direct conflict and has actively stated these monuments should be reduced and we should have development in these excluded areas,” Jayson O’Neill of the Western Values Project told the Salt Lake Tribune
The BLM released its Grand Staircase-Escalante use plan Aug. 23. The document lays out four courses of action, from least to most environmental impact. The BLM endorses the most impactful option. In July, the administration released a similar plan for nearly one million acres removed from Bears Ears National Monument. That document also favors fossil fuel extraction, livestock grazing, and motorized recreation, not to mention uranium mining.
Then-President Bill Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. The monument originally encompassed nearly 1.9 million acres, an area roughly the size of Delaware. Trump’s 2017 proclamation cut the monument nearly in half, to just over 1 million acres. The use plan allows drilling and mining on about 700,000 acres of the 900,000 acres removed from the monument. Extractive industries will not be allowed on land remaining within the monument.
Grazing will be expanded throughout current and former monument land. The plan allows more intense grazing than previously permitted, and opens more acreage to livestock, including along a delicate stretch of the Escalante River that remains within the monument.
The plan generally favors motorized recreation, opening two new routes to motorized users and designating a 2,528-acre “motorized play area” west of Escalante, where off-roaders will be free to hoon wherever they choose. Elsewhere in the monument, motorized use will be restricted to designated routes.
That plan “recklessly weakens protections even for the land that remains in the monument, failing to protect important sites from threats like illegal ATV use, looting, vandalism and damage from target shooting—which would be permitted within monument boundaries under this plan,” said Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona, chair of the House of Representatives Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples.
In July, we covered plans to log within the shrunken boundaries of Bears Ears, and now the lands removed from the monument have their extractive future laid out too. Bears Ears is the first national monument whose designation was spearheaded by Native American tribes. A coalition of five tribes petitioned then-President Barack Obama’s administration to protect the area, which includes tens of thousands of historic sites and cultural artifacts. Obama designated the monument at the end of 2016. A year later, Trump’s proclamation reduced it by 85 percent, from about 1.35 million acres to just over 200,000 acres.
The Trump administration’s plan allows for clearing forests for grazing or wildfire control by dragging a heavy chain between two tractors. The practice is destructive for landscapes and archeological sites, and is often used to prepare land for commercial cattle grazing, says Earthjustice attorney Heidi McIntosh. The environmental advocacy group is part of a coalition of tribes, environmental groups, and other stakeholders that sued the president immediately after he signed his proclamations dismantling Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. That case is pending before the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
If judge Tanya Chutkan rules in favor of the tribes and environmentalists, the monuments would be restored to their original boundaries and the administration would be required to develop new use plans. Last year Judge Chutkan rejected the Trump administration’s motion to move the case to more sympathetic court in Utah. She has not yet ruled on the administration’s motion to dismiss.