Trump finalizes plans to open Utah monuments for mining and drilling

Lawsuits are pending from groups who have challenged the constitutionality of shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante

Plans finalized on Thursday for two national monuments in Utah downsized by Donald Trump would ensure that lands previously off-limits to energy development will be open to mining and drilling.

The move comes despite pending lawsuits from conservation, tribal and paleontology groups, who have challenged the constitutionality of the president’s action. The Trump administration slashed the size of Bears Ears national monument by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument by nearly half in December 2017, in what represented the largest elimination of public lands protections in US history.

Conservation groups criticized the Trump administration on Thursday for spending time on management plans they believe will become moot when the court sides with their assertion that Trump misused the Antiquities Act to reverse decisions by previous presidents.

“It’s the height of arrogance for Trump to rush through final decisions on what’s left of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante while we’re fighting his illegal evisceration of these national monuments in court,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “Trump is eroding vital protections for these spectacular landscapes. We won’t rest until all of these public lands are safeguarded for future generations.”

Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument in 1996 on land that showcases cliffs, canyons, waterfalls and arches in southern Utah. Barack Obama created Bears Ears national monument in 2016 on a scenic swath of southern Utah with red rock plateaus, cliffs and canyons on land considered sacred to tribes.

A joint statement released by Native American tribal nations and conservation groups behind the court cases challenging Trump’s downsizing said the monuments are hotbeds of paleontological research, as well as archeological, cultural and natural resources.

Sarah Bauman, the executive director of the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, said the monument was an essential site for research into the climate crisis. “As a result of its physical isolation and areas of minimal human impact, as well as its enormous ecological diversity, it provides mankind with rare opportunities for unique comparative climate change studies,” she said. “Without protections, these opportunities will be lost and with them our ability to build essential knowledge and resources for mitigating climate change.”

The lands have generated little interest from energy companies in the two years since Trump cut their size, said Casey Hammond, the acting assistant secretary for land and minerals management with the US Department of the Interior.

Hammond said in a conference call the department had a duty to work on the management plans after Trump signed his proclamations despite the pending lawsuits that seek to return the monuments to their original sizes.

“If we stopped and waited for every piece of litigation to be resolved we would never be able to do much of anything around here,” Hammond said.

Market dynamics have limited interest in a large coal reserve found in the now unprotected lands cut from Grand Staircase and uranium on lands cut from Bears Ears.

But an economic analysis by the US government estimates coal production could lead to $208m in annual revenues and $16.6m in royalties on lands cut from Grand Staircase. Oil and gas wells in that area could produce $4.1m in annual revenues, the analysis says.

If interest comes as energy market forces shift, Hammond said the lands cut remain under federal control and governed by “time-tested laws” and subject to environmental regulations. He rebuffed the oft-repeated claim from conservation groups that there would be a “free-for-all” for mineral development.

“Any suggestion that these lands and resources will be adversely impacted by the mere act of being excluded from the monuments is simply not true,” Hammond said.

Trump cut the size of the monuments following a review of 27 national monuments by the then interior secretary, Ryan Zinke. The move earned cheers from Republican leaders in Utah, including the former US senator Orrin Hatch, as well as many local ranchers who graze cattle on monument land.

Guardian staff and agencies

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