Interior Moves to Speed Energy Development on Formerly Protected Utah Land

February 7, 2020by Jacob Holzman, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)
The snow-capped Henry Mountains rise from the Colorado Plateau with the canyons of Lake Powell in the foreground, in southern Utah on March 7, 2017. This is one of the views from the Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.35-million-acre monument President Barack Obama created shortly before leaving office. (Stuart Leavenworth/McClatchy/TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump drew the ire of tribes and environmentalists when he issued proclamations in December 2017 significantly reducing the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments, two sites designated by previous Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The Trump administration has asserted that the decision to shrink these monuments was not based on energy development. However, the final federal records of decision and land management plans released by the Interior Department on Thursday pave the way for the land Trump excluded from the monuments to be made available for future oil and gas leasing and mining claims, as well as timber harvesting, grazing and off-road vehicle travel.

Trump removed roughly 900,000 acres from Grand Staircase-Escalante, reducing the site from 1.9 million acres to 1 million. Under Interior’s decision, more than 680,000 of those 900,000 acres will be open to future oil and gas leasing. All 900,000 acres will be available for mining claims.

Bears Ears was reduced from 1.35 million acres to a little more than 200,000 acres. Interior’s action will place most of the land removed from the monument under federal land management plans enacted in 2008 that open almost all of it to mining claims and hundreds of thousands of acres to fossil fuel leasing.

No president before Trump had made such large reductions to national monuments since Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, which authorized presidents to protect sites from commercial development. Trump’s proclamations were immediately challenged in multiple lawsuits, which were consolidated into two cases sitting before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The judge presiding over them is considering dismissal motions by the Justice Department.

Interior’s announcement is likely to fan the flames of those cases by opening the door to a government auction of the previously excluded before the court can issue a ruling.

On a call with reporters Thursday, Assistant Interior Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Casey Hammond said the agency didn’t want to let legal challenges halt changes in managing the land at the two sites. In the two years since Trump cut land from the monuments, there has been “very little real interest in mineral development on these lands,” Hammond said.

“It’s important to note that if we stopped and waited for every piece of litigation to be resolved, we would never be able to do much of anything around here, so it’s our responsibility to continue the planning process while the legal process works itself out,” Hammond said.

Environmental groups and congressional Democrats predicted Thursday that the district court would find Trump’s proclamations illegal.

A representative for The Wilderness Society, one of the groups that sued to overturn the proclamations, said in a statement that “members of Congress, legal scholars, and more than a dozen groups who have filed lawsuits have made it clear that President Trump’s Executive Order and the use of taxpayer funds that led to these plans was illegal, yet the BLM continues to ignore the law.”

“This president is willing to inflict lasting damage on our country to benefit his industry boosters, and anyone who invests a dollar in drilling or digging in the newly opened areas should be prepared to lose their bet against public opinion and the strength of our legal system,” said House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., who co-signed an amicus brief in support of the tribes and environmental groups in the litigation.

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