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Photo Credit: US Department of the Interior

Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monument Reductions – Privatization of public lands

National Monument Reductions

In perhaps the greatest public lands robbery of them all, President Trump issued proclamations drastically shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah in December 2017. The fossil fuel industry requested the reductions, and they got their wish: the lands no longer protected by national monument designation have been reopened to exploitation, and a Canadian firm has already filed mining claims on former Grand Staircase-Escalante lands.

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National Monument Reductions Location

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Reduction

Trump cut Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument nearly in half, a gift to the fossil fuel industry.

Bears Ears National Monument Reduction

Trump slashed more than 1.1 million acres from Bears Ears National Monument at the behest of the uranium and oil and gas industries.

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Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service


National Monument Reductions – The Details

On December 4, 2017, President Trump issued proclamations dismantling Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Trump slashed more than 1.1 million acres from Bears Ears, almost 85 percent of the monument President Obama designated less than a year earlier to protect a landscape five area tribes hold sacred. The Obama designation had also given the tribes a role overseeing the monument’s management.

Grand Staircase-Escalante, designated in 1996 by President Clinton to safeguard thousands of archeological and paleontological sites, was cut nearly in half, with almost 900,000 acres lost. An Interior review of Grand Staircase-Escalante in the run up to the proclamations hid evidence that the 1996 designation had increased the discovery and recording of archeological sites while reducing vandalism, increased tourism revenue, and not harmed fishing guides’ livelihoods.

Within days of the proclamations, numerous tribes, conservationists and outdoor recreation businesses filed lawsuits to overturn them and restore the original boundaries, asserting the President has no authority to shrink national monuments designated by previous presidents. As of November, 2019, the cases are still in federal district court, with the plaintiffs having prevailed on the government’s motions to dismiss.

Although Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke claimed the reductions were made to “prioritize the voice of the people over that of the special interest groups,” internal Interior documents show just the opposite: that the reductions were done at the request of the fossil fuels and mining industries, despite overwhelming opposition from the general public. The powerful extractive industries wanted the reductions because they had been barred from developing existing mining claims and oil and gas leases, and prohibited from filing any new claims and leases, in the original monuments.

Interior records make it clear the uranium industry lobbied hard to reduce Bears Ears. A Canadian uranium company met with Interior officials a month before Trump ordered the department to review the existing monuments, and later went so far as to present Zinke with a map marking the areas it wanted removed. The results of that lobbying? A substantial majority of the more than 300 existing uranium claims that had been barred by the original designation are now conveniently outside the new boundary and open for exploitation.

The monument  was also re-drawn with oil and gas development in mind. Notwithstanding Zinke’s claim that “Bears Ears isn’t really about oil and gas,” the new, smaller boundary enables Utah to lease all oil and gas sites on the state-owned land inside the original monument.

Grand Staircase-Escalante’s reduction will also help the fossil fuels industry. Much of the Kaiparowits Plateau, which contains one of the nation’s largest coal deposits, was stripped of protection when the monument boundary was reconfigured.

With the fate of the two monuments uncertain as the lawsuits work their way through the courts, Utah’s federal representatives have tried to put Trump’s proclamations beyond the court’s purview. In the last Congress, Representative Rob Bishop’s (R) National Monument Creation and Protection Act would have greatly constrained a President’s ability to designate new monuments while at the same time authorizing him or her to reduce the size of existing monuments. Representative John Curtis (R) introduced bills that would not only have made President Trump’s reductions of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante permanent, but would also have handed over significant management authority to local officials. In the Senate, Mike Lee (R) introduced the Protect Utah’s Rural Economy Act , which would have required the consent of both Congress and the state legislature prior to the designation of any new monument in Utah.

Lee is so adamantly opposed to national monuments (and public lands in general) that he blocked the bipartisan omnibus public lands bill at the close of the 115th Congress because it didn’t include language requiring Congressional approval for new monument designations in Utah. He then sought to amend the omnibus bill in the next Congress with similar language before the legislation passed in February, 2019. Given Lee’s willingness to block a bill that had the support of fellow Western Republican Senators and Utah county commissioners, it’s no surprise he, along with newly-elected Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), wasted little time re-introducing the Protect Utah’s Rural Economy Act to the 116th Congress. Additional anti-monuments bills from Utah’s representatives should be expected over the next two years.

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