Updated 2:24 p.m. MST 2/6/2020
In the face of ongoing litigation from tribes and conservation groups, the Trump administration has finalized plans to expand drilling, mining and grazing across southern Utah — including within the former bounds of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments.
Bureau of Land Management and Department of Interior officials made minor changes to previous proposals. Those changes include reversing a controversial plan to allow grazing along most of the banks of the Escalante River — a tributary of the Colorado River that runs through 87 miles of south-central Utah that’s also a popular corridor for backpackers and tourists.
In addition, the BLM reversed a proposal requiring the removal of all human waste from the Bears Ears National Monument, allowing it to be buried within the monument instead. The finalized plans went into effect Thursday morning and implementation planning will begin in the coming weeks.
“These decisions mark an important moment in Utah’s history by providing certainty to local communities, business owners permittees and the recreating public on what activities are appropriate for those public lands,” Casey Hammond, acting Department of the Interior assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said Thursday in a conference call with reporters.
Thursday’s announcement and the release of the management plans come more than two years after President Donald Trump issued proclamations that drastically reduced the two Utah monuments. Conservation groups and Native American tribes immediately sued, claiming Trump’s reduction of the monuments was illegal, and are pushing to have the reductions reversed in court.
The final plan for Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah does not include new measures to protect cultural sites, as requested by tribal and advocacy groups, who say the new plan actually removes some protections that were in place before President Barack Obama designated the monument in 2016.
For now, the management plans open up more than 1,000 square miles within the former boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to potential coal mining and oil and gas development. It also increases grazing and lowers environmental protections within the bounds of that monument, which was created by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Local officials welcomed the new plans. In a Bureau of Land Management press release, Kane County Commissioner Andy Gant described the plans as imperfect but a step in the right direction for the future of his county. He also thanked President Trump and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt for addressing the county’s preference for local control over public lands.
Former state lawmaker Mike Noel echoed those sentiments. He said visitors often fail to realize how regulations on public lands can have a stifling effect on rural communities in Southern Utah, where the majority of lands are managed by the federal government.
“What the federal government does on those adjacent public lands affects every single piece of private property and the economic viability of the communities within those areas,” Noel said, adding that even the tourism industry requires energy and infrastructure.
But environmentalists are pushing back.
“It’s a significant sea change,” Steve Bloch, legal director for the environmental nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said. “This landscape that was heralded as being one of the wildest landscapes in the Lower 48 states will now be managed in a much more damaging and destructive manner.”
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is among the conservation groups and tribes that sued the Trump administration immediately after it reduced the monuments’ boundaries in late 2017. Bloch said his organization has no plans to file an injunction to temporarily block the plans.
“What makes me sleep a little better at night is knowing that we’ve essentially already challenged these plans and Trump’s unlawful acts to shrink both the Grand Staircase and the Bears Ears monuments,” he said. “Those lawsuits are moving through the federal courts and we expect a decision later this year, and we expect to win.”
If the courts reverse Trump’s reductions, Bloch said, both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase would be restored and managed under their original plans.
Critics of the Bears Ears management plan say it falls short of protecting cultural sites, and in some cases opens them up to a greater risk of damage. For example, the new plan allows camping in any spot that has been previously disturbed, whereas camping in certain parts of the monument was restricted to designated areas prior to the creation of the monument.
“The increased visitation is the biggest threat to the area,” said Josh Ewing, executive director of Bluff-based conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa. “It specifically doesn’t have a strategy for dealing with that.”
The management plan is also opposed by the five tribes named in the initial monument designation, which are represented by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The coalition is a plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit over the Trump Administration’s reduction of the monument. And its members chose not to participate in the process that resulted in the plan.
“The Trump administration’s effort to preempt any adverse ruling by prematurely finalizing the land management planning process for the illegally declared Shash Jaa and Indian Creek units, unequivocally demonstrates a complete disregard for Native American concerns and blatant disrespect for the cultural landscape protections the Tribes have sought,” Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe and the coalition leader wrote in a press release.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. Follow Nate Hegyi on Twitter @natehegyi.