For lease: Lands formerly known as national monuments

By Charlie Booher

As the sun hangs over the horizon, it illuminates Cedar Mesa in the former Bears Ears National Monument. ©BLM

Some lands removed from Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by President Trump’s executive order in December have been opened to mining and drilling.

These lands, set aside by previous Democratic administrations, are known to have extensive reserves of coal and uranium, as well as natural gas and oil deposits. President Trump and Interior Secretary Zinke have regularly indicated their desire to expand energy and mineral developments on federal lands.

“The idea that we’re going to give these over to oil and gas companies is a false narrative,” Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, told the Washington Post. His committee has hosted a variety of proposed legislation on these national monuments, and recently held hearings on two bills that would create smaller monuments within the footprints of the previous national monuments.

H.R. 4532, the “Shash Jaa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act,” would codify President Trump’s executive order shrinking Bears Ears National Monument, which President Obama created under the Antiquities Act in the last days of his administration. Introduced by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, this bill would establish two smaller monuments, Shash Jaa (Navajo for “Bears Ears”) and Indian Creek, both of which would be managed by tribal management committees. Members would be appointed by the president under the advice of the Utah congressional delegation.

Introduced by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, H.R. 4558, the “Grand Staircase Escalante Enhancement Act,” would establish a national park on the site of the reduced Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. However, it would mandate that the new park be managed by a council made up four county commissioners, one member of the Utah congressional delegation and two presidential appointees — including one from the Interior Department.

This legislation would also allow for mining and drilling leases to be filed for the lands originally included in the Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Both bills have met with sharp criticism.

Many tribal leaders oppose Curtis’ bill, citing a lack of tribal representation. “This is an attack on our sovereignty and violates the United States treaty and trust in government-to-government relations with Indian tribes,” Tony Small, vice chairman of the Ute Business Committee, told the Salt Lake Tribune.

At a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on this bill on Jan. 9, Curtis said his bill would put “a high priority on protecting and preserving both antiquities and the natural beauties of this area, as well as maintaining traditional uses of the land.”

Many ranking Democrats disagree. Ranking member Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, submitted a seldom-used “Rule 11 letter” that requires the committee to continue the hearing at a later date with witnesses selected by minority party committee members, as no Native American tribes were represented in the initial hearing. The hearing has not yet been called back into session with these witnesses.

Grijalva has also circulated a letter to Secretary Zinke requesting “an emergency withdrawal from new commercial development claims of the lands within the traditional boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.”

The committee held a hearing on Stewart’s bill on Dec. 6. Supporters cited upwards of $330 billion in economic losses, mostly from lost mineral and oil revenues, for maintaining Grand Staircase-Escalante in its former state. However, the hearing was dominated by opposition to this legislation, especially by environmental groups and outdoor outfitters. These groups noted the continued growth of the surrounding region’s economy despite the “locking up” of federal lands.

Some critics argue that the bill would keep the Park Service from meeting its 1916 Organic Act charter “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Charlie Booher is a Policy Communication Intern at The Wildlife Society. Read more of Charlie's articles.