At 9 a.m. EST Friday, the extractive industry will gain drilling and mining access to previously protected American land, according to an order issued by President Donald Trump late last year.
Trump took an unprecedented step for a U.S. president in December — signing a proclamation that dramatically reduced the size of two national monuments. Bears Ears National Monument was cut by more than 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was reduced by half. This resulted in the largest elimination of protected areas in U.S. history. The move put tens of thousands of Native American sacred sites at risk, along with key wildlife habitat, and areas used for outdoor recreation.
While the longer-term fate of Trump’s likely illegal action will play out in the courts, also buried in his December proclamation was a provision that on February 2, 2018, the areas excluded from the monuments would become open to private mineral companies to begin staking mining and drilling claims.
“We’re working on getting information and new monument maps ready for people interested in claims,” Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spokesman Michael Richardson confirmed to Reuters.
Staking a mining claim on public lands gives an individual or company the exclusive right to extract minerals from a specific area of that land. Under the nearly 150-year-old 1872 Mining Law, staking a claim still involves literally putting stakes into the ground at the four corners of the boundary of your claim. This is then followed up within 90 days by recording the claim with the local BLM office and paying a modest annual fee.
Though Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and some supporters of Trump’s cuts, like Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), have denied that the goal of the reductions was for mineral development, both monuments sit above known coal and mineral deposits.
Bears Ears in particular, has proven deposits of uranium and other minerals within it’s original boundaries. One company, Energy Fuels Resources, owns and operates a uranium mine just outside the boundaries of the original monument. In May, the company submitted a letter to Interior requesting reductions to the monument and noted “there are also many other known uranium and vanadium deposits located within the [original boundaries] that could provide valuable energy and mineral resources in the future.”
House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), along with 11 other Democrats on the committee, sent a letter to Zinke on Wednesday asking him to prevent mining and development claims inside the original borders of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. The letter requested that the secretary issue an “emergency withdrawal” under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) due to the clear threat that “eager” mining companies pose.
The potential destruction to Bears Ears is also gaining attention from conservation observers outside of the U.S.; earlier this week an arm of the United Nations asked the president to reverse his action, writing that the reduction to Bears Ears could cause irreparable damage to historical artifacts.
#USA: The decision to reduce the area included in #BearsEarsNationalMonument in Utah by 85 percent is a huge setback for the protection of the rights of #indigenouspeoples. https://t.co/ydskApamtS pic.twitter.com/a3oKLTuRCX
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) January 31, 2018
“The decision to reduce the area included in the national monument by 85 percent is a huge setback for the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a special rapporteur for the United Nation’s Human Rights Council. “It exposes thousands of acres of sacred lands and archaeological sites to the threats of desecration, contamination and permanent destruction. I urge President Trump to reverse this decision and ensure the protection of sacred lands and archaeological sites for the benefit of future generations.”
While the national monuments in Utah face imminent harm, they are not the only public lands currently at risk. The Trump administration’s national monument report includes plans to alter at least eight additional monuments that range from allowing logging in Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters, to allowing commercial fishing in the Pacific Remote Islands.
Jenny Rowland is a senior policy analyst on the Public Lands team at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed within CAP.