New plans for Utah national monuments reveal resource extraction was goal of Trump’s attack

Native American tribes and environmental groups are optimistic about legal challenge.

President Donald Trump issued an executive order in late 2017 calling for a reduction in the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. CREDIT: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
President Donald Trump issued an executive order in late 2017 calling for a reduction in the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. CREDIT: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Trump administration released draft plans on Wednesday outlining how it intends to allow resource extraction on vast swaths of land that President Donald Trump ordered stripped from the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments in Utah.

Trump signed two executive orders in December 2017 that eliminated more than 2 million acres from the two national monuments. The Utah congressional delegation had long fought for greater industry access to the federal lands. They urged Trump to act quickly upon entering the White House to reduce the federal government’s oversight of these sacred Native American lands and sensitive natural habitats.

President Bill Clinton declared the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante a national monument in 1996, while President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears as a national monument in late 2016. Trump’s executive orders came after a Department of the Interior review, initiated in April 2017, looked at all national monuments created since 1996.

Rather than offering to protect the important landscapes, the management plans — prepared by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service — place a priority on energy development. The plans cover the 880,000 acres carved out by Trump from Grand Staircase and the 200,000 acres remaining in Bears Ears from its original 1.35 million acres.


Even though Trump ordered the reduction in size of the two national monuments, the land will continue to be federally owned, unless certain parcels get auctioned off to private interests.

The BLM’s plans for the 800,000 acres that Trump eliminated from the Grand Staircase monument are especially concerning to conservationists. The government’s draft plan analyzed four alternatives and selected a “preferred alternative” that “emphasizes resource uses and reduces constraints while ensuring the proper care and management of monument objects,” according to the executive summary.

The Trump administration chose the option that emphasizes resource use even though Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) denied that mineral development was the goal of these national monument reductions.

But Utah politicians and industry officials were never happy with the restrictions on new logging and mining operations and oil and gas drilling that occurred with Clinton’s designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where significant coal deposits exist — as do oil and gas reserves.


“We’ve said all along that the entire charade was an unprecedented gift to extractive interests seeking to drill and mine within the boundaries of these historical, cultural, and paleontological wonders,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said Wednesday in a statement. “Even a cursory examination confirms our greatest fears: these management plans read like a neon sign inviting drilling and mining companies into our national monuments.”

Included in the plan was a nearly 100-page study of mineral potential in the lands cut from Grand Staircase. Conducted by the Utah Geological Survey, the study details the availability of a broad range of minerals, including coal, oil, tar sands, uranium, sand, and gravel.

The plan also contemplates the sale of more than 1,610 acres of Grand Staircase land, HuffPost reported Wednesday. The acres “identified for disposal” in the draft plan includes 16 parcels ranging in size from 8.5 to 591.6 acres, according to the report.

“The BLM is very open about its intentions,” Stephen Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said in a statement on Wednesday after reading the draft plans.


The BLM’s draft environmental impact statement for Grand Staircase explained that its preferred alternative would “conserve the least land area for physical, biological, and cultural resources … and is the least restrictive to energy and mineral development.”

“Even the lands that Trump left as national monuments would be managed in a way that is less protective than they currently enjoy,” Bloch added

Starting Friday, the public will have 90 days to submit comments on the draft plans for both Utah national monuments.

Native Americans, who had been demanding protection of the Bears Ears land for decades, view the plans as yet another slap in the face by an administration that has shown little concern for Native American interests. The Bears Ears area has been home to Hopi, Diné, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni peoples and was designated as a national monument at the request of these people to protect countless archaeological, cultural, and natural resources, including the wealth of traditional knowledge that Native people hold for this region.

Trump’s decision to shrink the Bears Ears national monument will put tens of thousands of Native American sacred sites at risk, along with key wildlife habitat.

The Trump administration, however, is facing some major legal obstacles in its attack on the Utah monuments. Environmental groups and Native American tribes are challenging Trump’s executive orders in court. They argue that the Antiquities Act of 1906 doesn’t give the president authority to reduce the size of monuments created under prior administrations. The lawsuits over the monument reductions were filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“The rushed time frame the BLM has pursued has almost certainly resulted in a flawed document that aims to manage an unacceptably and illegally downsized national monument,” William Doelle, president and CEO of Archaeology Southwest, said Wednesday in a statement. “The lack of tribal engagement and lack of appropriate landscape scale are clearly the biggest flaws.”

Citing legal experts, environmental groups are expressing confidence the courts will overturn the president’s executive orders. With the courts expect to reverse Trump’s executive orders, “the rush to finalize these plans will prove to be an extraordinary waste of taxpayer dollars,” Rokala said.

The Trump administration’s fixation on shredding the the national monuments in Utah is at odds with a large percentage of hunters, shooters, fishermen, and other public-land users who support the national monument designations. When federally owned lands are designated as national monuments, hunters can still hunt, fishermen can still fish, and off-road enthusiasts can still drive their vehicles on designated roads and land inside the national monument. Even livestock grazing is allowed in certain areas of national monuments.

The draft plan for the much smaller Bears Ears lists a preferred alternative that “would allow for the continuation of multiple uses of public lands and would maintain similar recreation management levels while protecting Monument objects and values.”

The Bears Ears National Monument, established by Obama, protects a landscape of ridges and canyons filled with ruins, rock art, and cultural sites considered to be sacred to numerous Native American tribes. In his order, Trump carved out more than 85 percent of this national monument, leaving just 200,000 acres.

Last month, DOI accidentally released documents that revealed agency officials had dismissed evidence that public lands provide numerous benefits in favor of the belief that more public lands should be used for fossil fuel interests, along with ranching and logging.

The BLM acknowledged in its plan for Bears Ears that it would have would have negative effects on fish and wildlife habitat, increase the likelihood of vandalism and unlawful collecting of paleontological resources, increase damage to critical soil crusts that prevent erosion, impact dark night skies with increased light pollution, and increase the potential for the spread of invasive species, according to Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director for the Center for Western Priorities.

“Just as it has all along, this Interior Department will ignore Americans who want to see these monumental landscapes protected, and bulldoze its way forward with plans to throw open the gates for more mining, logging, and drilling,” Prentice-Dunn, wrote Wednesday in a blog post. “Luckily, the courts will have the ultimate say.”