Environmental groups caught the Department of the Interior trying to sell off part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, despite a pledge by Secretary Ryan Zinke never to put public lands up for sale.
After massive backlash from environmental groups and the public, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) late Friday canceled all plans to sell off the land. The 1,610 acres of public lands that the BLM proposed selling to private interests had been part of the Grand Staircase national monument until President Donald Trump — in an extremely controversial move — radically shrunk the size of the monument last December.
“We believe the Department only walked it back because those who are closely reading the management plans brought this to light,” Nicole Croft, executive director of the Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, said in a statement in response to the Interior Department changing its mind. Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners is a nonprofit group that works to protect the landscape and wildlife habitats the of the national monument
The environmental groups’ work “shows that diligence pays off and is likely an omen for what we’re going to uncover as we dive deeper into Secretary Zinke’s plans for leasing and decimating this national treasure,” Croft said.
Zinke has criticized environmental groups for accusing the Trump administration of wanting to steal public lands by rolling back monument protections.
The Interior secretary has pledged on several occasions that he opposes the sale or transfer of public lands to private entities. At his confirmation hearing in January 2017, Zinke said: “I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public land.”
In a March 3, 2017 speech, only days after getting sworn in as secretary, Zinke promised Interior staffers: “You can hear it from my lips. We will not sell or transfer public land.”
Just last December, Zinke reiterated this pledge. “There’s not one square inch, not one square inch, of land that is removed from federal protection,” Zinke told Fox Business.
But then last Wednesday, the Trump administration released its management plans for the much smaller Grand Staircase and Bears Ears national monuments — prepared by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service — that placed a priority on energy development and included the plan to sell off the 1,610 acres of public lands.
Either Zinke had a change of heart about selling off public lands or does not have a clear understanding of what his agency is doing.
“Does Secretary Zinke have any idea what’s going on inside the Interior Department? He was caught red-handed trying to sell off our public lands to his political supporters,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said Friday in a statement. “It’s only after two days of terrible news stories that he is now changing direction.”
In December, Trump announced the largest-ever reduction of a national monument in the nation’s history, shrinking Bears Ears by some 1.1 million acres, or nearly 85 percent. Trump also announced that he would be reducing Grand Staircase to nearly half its original size.
Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt took the fall for the inclusion of the planned sale in the BLM’s management plan for Grand Staircase. He issued a statement late Friday taking responsibility for the oversight that led to the plan to sell the 1,600 acres of public lands in Utah. “The failure to capture this inconsistency stops with me,” Bernhardt said.
Environmental groups were not convinced that the planned sale of public lands in Utah was a mistake.
“The attempt was more than just Zinke’s dirty scheme to illegally sell off public lands, as some of the land slated for sale is adjacent to land owned by an avid Trump supporter and a current Republican lawmaker in Utah,” the Sierra Club said Friday in a statement.
Noel applauded Trump’s decision to shrink the size of the Grand Escalante monument. He unsuccessfully attempted to rename a Utah highway after Trump to thank the president for the executive order, HuffPost reported last week.