President Donald Trump directed the Department of Interior to open up more federal lands for energy production and recreation, including in Utah where he downsized massive amounts of land put off limits by the Obama administration.
The Department of Interior announced the finalized plan last week even as environmentalists challenge Trump’s 2017 proclamations to return the boundaries Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante monuments to be consistent with the Antiquities Act of 1906.
The plan allows for leasing land in Utah for the mining of coal and drilling for oil and gas and for recreation and tourism.
“The approved plans keep the commitment of this Administration to the families and communities of Utah that know and love this land the best and will care for these resources for many generations to come,” Casey Hammond, acting assistant secretary, land and minerals management, said in the DOI announcement. “These cooperatively developed and locally driven plans restore a prosperous future to communities too often dismissed and punished by unilateral decisions of those that would not listen to the voices of Utahns.”
“I appreciate the President’s and Secretary [David] Bernhardt’s collaborative approach to both the Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Bears Ears national monuments,” Utah Governor Gary Herbert said in the announcement. “As the Antiquities Act itself states, and as I have reiterated for years, monuments should be as small as possible to protect artifacts and cultural resources.”
“And they should not be created over the objections of local communities,” Herbert said. “I’m happy to see the administration develop management plans that protect areas with sensitive artifacts and yet still provide a way to use these lands for recreation, grazing, and management practices that will keep the lands healthy.”
“The outcomes are always better when the federal government works with local communities rather than presumes to know what is best for them,” Hebert said.
“These management plans are the result of meaningful collaboration that was clearly lacking in the politically-motivated monument designations by past administrations,” Rep. Robert Bishop (R-UT) said in the announcement. “Well-funded special interest groups that aren’t from our state will spread outrageous misinformation, but the fact remains that this administration has continued to take actions that reflect the will of Utahns who call these places home.”
“When President Trump reduced the size of both Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, he did it with the full support of Utah’s federal delegation and the elected officials who represent those areas,” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) said in the announcement. “By contrast, the Obama and Clinton administrations snubbed and ignored Utah’s local, state, and federal elected officials who objected to the creation of both monuments.”
But hardcore environmentalists are expressing rage over the move, especially because they hope to win court challenges to the Trump administration reduction of the two monuments’ boundaries.
“It’s the height of arrogance for Trump to rush through final decisions on what’s left of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante while we’re fighting his illegal evisceration of these national monuments in court,” Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity said in a report in the Guardian. “Trump is eroding vital protections for these spectacular landscapes. We won’t rest until all of these public lands are safeguarded for future generations.”
Critics also claim that the land is sacred to Native Americans and can even fight climate change, according to the Guardian:
A joint statement released by Native American tribal nations and conservation groups behind the court cases challenging Trump’s downsizing said the monuments are hotbeds of paleontological research, as well as archeological, cultural and natural resources.
Sarah Bauman, the executive director of the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, said the monument was an essential site for research into the climate crisis.
“As a result of its physical isolation and areas of minimal human impact, as well as its enormous ecological diversity, it provides mankind with rare opportunities for unique comparative climate change studies,” Bauman said. “Without protections, these opportunities will be lost and with them our ability to build essential knowledge and resources for mitigating climate change.”
But the Guardian also reported the rich resources in Utah, including a federal economic analysis that estimates coal production could lead to $208 million in annual revenues and $16.6 million in royalties on lands cut from Grand Staircase. Oil and gas wells could produce $4.1 million in annual revenues.
Boise State Public Radio also reported on Utah’s natural resources and attractions:
Underneath all this beauty — the river, the canyons, the quiet — there are other treasures.
“Coal seams. Under the ground there’s oil and gas. There’s some uranium. There’s tar sands,” says John Freemuth, a public lands policy expert and professor at Boise State University. He says industry has been kicking the tires of Utah’s red rock desert for decades. “There are a lot of extractable mineral resources in that area.”
“Tourism is a vital part of this community,” says Nathan Waggoner, the long-time owner of an outdoor gear shop in the town of Escalante. Tourism employs almost half the people who live and work in the area, most of them in the service industry. All in all, tourism pumps more than $150 million into the two counties that make up Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument every year.
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