WASHINGTON – The Interior Department completed plans Thursday that will expand drilling, mining and grazing in southern Utah that had once been protected as two national monuments, sparking an outcry from tribal groups and conservationists.
The decision comes more than two years after Trump dramatically cut the size of the monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, and will likely intensify a legal fight over the contested sites.
The expanses of windswept badlands, narrow slot canyons and towering rock formations are sacred to several Native American nations and prized by scientists and outdoor enthusiasts. Bears Ears contains tens of thousands of cultural artifacts and rare rock art; in the rock layers of Grand Staircase, researchers have unearthed 75 million-year-old dinosaur fossils.
But the lands also harbor significant amounts of oil, gas and coal the administration hopes to develop, as well as grazing land valued by local ranchers.
Officials from the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service, who manage the lands, have said the new plans balance the region’s economic interests against the need to safeguard natural and cultural wonders. Acting assistant secretary for the Interior Department Casey Hammond noted the areas excluded from monuments are still protected by federal environmental laws.
“With these decisions we are advancing our goal to restore trust and be a good neighbor,” Hammond said Thursday.
The monuments were established under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which empowers a president to protect public lands of archaeological significance. Grand Staircase was first designated as a national monument by President Bill Clinton in 1996; Bears Ears was established by President Barack Obama 20 years later.
After the Interior Department redrew the monuments’ boundaries, Grand Staircase is half its former size, and Bears Ears has shrunk by 85 percent.
A coalition of groups sued the administration immediately after Trump announced the new boundaries. They argue that the act does not give a president the authority to revoke their predecessors’ national monument designations. The Justice Department last year sought to have the two lawsuits dismissed, but a federal judge denied the motions.
Hammond said Thursday that the Interior Department could not wait for those cases to conclude before it finalized plans for the areas now excluded from the monuments.
“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.
The decision to overhaul what activities are permitted on large swaths of federal land in southern Utah comes as the Bureau of Land Management is eyeing much bigger changes to how it manages the 245 million acres of public land and 700 million acres of minerals buried underneath them.
In a letter obtained last month by The Washington Post, BLM’s top Alaska official informed tribes that the agency is considering revamping how it writes its resource management plans to make it easier to log and extract energy from lands it oversees. The proposal aims to streamline environmental reviews, Chad Padgett wrote, in order to save taxpayer money and be more responsive to local needs.
In developing the new plan, the Bureau of Land Management consulted with Native American tribes and considered thousands of public comments, Hammond said. The Interior Department’s decision won praise from several local officials, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, R.
“Monuments should be as small as possible to protect artifacts and cultural resources. And they should not be created over the objections of local communities,” Herbert said in a statement.
But environmental groups argue that the plans open up access to destructive activities in unparalleled natural areas.
“One of the wildest landscapes in the lower forty-eight states will be lost if these plans are carried into action over the next few years,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the parties to the monuments lawsuits.