A little more than two years after dramatically shrinking two national monuments in Utah, the Trump administration has finished off its plans to exploit the land it cut out. I, for one, will rest easy knowing that formerly pristine wilderness and land held sacred by local tribes is finally in the hands of prospectors, ranchers, and oil and gas companies. Surely nothing could go wrong.
The whole fiasco around Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument started early in the Trump administration. Egged on by Utah’s virulently anti-public land Congressional delegation (particularly former House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop), Trump signed off on a massive 2-million-acre reduction to the monuments in December 2017. Tribes and environmental organizations have sued the administration in response, but the Bureau of Land Management went on to finalize rules for the less-protected lands.
“The only certainty today’s announcement creates is of a long drawn-out court fight to stop yet another unprecedented attack on America’s public lands by the Trump administration,” Center of Western Priorities policy director Jesse Prentice-Dunn said in a statement. “With these plans, the administration is racing to allow new development on formerly protected public lands before the courts can overturn its illegal action.”
In truly Trumpian fashion, the Bureau of Land Management promoted its newly finished plan for the monuments as part of a process that “right-sized the boundaries” and “restores access” to the lands, according to a press release.
“These plans will conserve our treasured lands, support the needs of local communities,” BLM Utah Acting State Director Anita Bilbao said, describing literally the opposite of what is happening. She went on to note the plans will also “address increases in visitation to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments and surrounding lands.”
OK, sure. All of this is, not shockingly, largely bullshit that hides what’s really going on here.
Let’s start with “right-sized” claim and that local communities are happy with this. That conveniently sidesteps the fact that tribes in the area—the original local communities, if you will—are largely against the reductions. The monuments once protected scores of culturally significant sites that could now be ruined by visitors or industrial operations.
“The tribes are trying to protect that land not only for Native American culture and heritage and to the ties that we have, but for all Americans,” Cassandra Begay, tribal liaison for environmental rights organization PANDOS, told Earther ahead of the monument reduction back in 2017. “They’re trying to protect these public lands for all future generations, for the human race.”
Then there’s the “restored access” claim. Left unsaid was who, exactly, had their access restored. Allow me to fill in the blank for you. The new rules could help expand oil, gas, and timber exploitation as well as grazing. Miners have already been allowed to stake claims as well. The Trump administration worked behind the scenes to make sure those interests were well-represented in its final decision (those interests were also represented through requests made by then-Utah Senator Orrin Hatch’s staff).
It’s no wonder this whole thing is going to be tied up in court for a long while.