Bears Ears, Grand Staircase: Praise, condemnation in equal measure

Record of Decisions allow drillers, miners to complete leasing process

grand staircase-escalante
The landscapes of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments could be altered by drilling and mining interests with the latest action taken by the Trump administration. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

The Bureau of Land Management on behalf of the Trump administration on Feb. 6 finalized plans to allow mining and energy drilling on almost 2 million acres that are attached to southern Utah national monuments Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

While Utah and federal public officials lauded the decisions and heaped lavish praise on President Donald Trump personally in a lengthy BLM press release, opponents to opening up the area to mining and drilling universally condemned the decisions.

“The approved management plans for these two incredible national monuments are the result of extensive and deliberate collaboration between cooperating agency partners, local communities, stakeholders, the Utah Resource Advisory Council, Tribes, and the American public,” said BLM Utah acting state director Anita Bilbao in a statement. “These plans will conserve our treasured lands, support the needs of local communities and address increases in visitation to the Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments and surrounding lands.”

Among those speaking for the other side was Neal Clark, the Wildlands director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“We’re disappointed but not surprised that the BLM has finalized terrible management plans for what remains of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments,” said Clark. “These plans represent the lowest common denominator for BLM stewardship of the irreplaceable cultural, paleontological and biological resources on these awe-inspiring lands.”

Clark worries the plans also “set the stage for destructive chaining of native vegetation, unmanageable recreation and increased off-road vehicle use.”

The New York Times in a report published late last week said the “formal land-use blueprint for the approximately 861,974 acres of land [at Grand Staircase-Escalante] will allow oil, gas and coal companies to complete the legal process for leasing mines and wells on land that had once been part” of the monuments.

The Trump administration called the decisions a “win” for Utah’s economy and that it kept its “commitment … to the families and communities in Utah that know and love this land the best and will care for these resources for many generations to come,” Casey Hammond told the NYT. He is the Interior Department’s acting assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management.

To date, no companies have taken steps to lease land for drilling or mining, even though they could have done so for months after Trump removed protections. Last week’s decisions could change that.

Friends of Cedar Mesa in a press release said the final decisions are “actually worse than the plan we protested last year,” according to Executive Director Josh Ewing.

The Denver Post in a report said conservation, tribal and paleontology groups will challenge the constitutionality of the President’s action, particularly as it relates to Trump downsizing the two monuments and opening them up for mining and drilling.

Trump at the time said he did so to reverse what he characterized as “misuse of the Antiquities Act” by Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton, who established Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 and Barack Obama, who created Bears Ears 20 years later.

While the decisions will undoubtedly be challenged in court, Gov. Gary Herbert and other high-ranking state officials lauded them.

“I appreciate the President’s and Secretary [David] Bernhardt’s collaborative approach to both the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments,” said Herbert. “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.”

Beaver County Commissioner Tammy Pearson offered effusive praise to the President.

“The downsizing of the Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to a manageable acreage was the most amazing, selfless act of a sitting President of the United States,” she said. “Utah thanks you, President Trump. Both management plans have been thoughtful and painstakingly put together to coordinate proper management, to protect local culture and heritage, while also maintaining the integrity and sanctity of the antiquities to be protected.”

Regardless of where one stands on this issue, it is a near certainty last week’s Record of Decision will wind up in the courts.

“The administration is illegally gutting protections for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, and the repercussions will be felt far beyond the monuments’ boundaries,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. “The administration’s reckless management plans set our worst fears in motion, leaving these treasured monuments and surrounding national parks needlessly vulnerable. The new plans put at risk the very things these sites were established to protect, including sacred spaces, adjacent national park landscapes and troves of cultural and scientific resources. Our national monuments and parks are meant to be protected for and enjoyed by all, and we will continue to fight until this landscape is protected as it was intended.”