Trump finalizes plans to shrink national monuments; conservationists react

Bears Ears, the twin rock formations which form part of Bears Ears National Monument in the Four Corners region, are pictured in Utah, U.S. May 16, 2017. (Bob Strong/REUTERS)

(CN) – The Trump administration finalized plans Thursday to shrink two national monuments in Utah while opening up recently freed portions to possible natural resource extraction and grazing.

The plans solidify land use designations in the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments while finalizing the elimination of a combined nearly 2 million acres of public land from both monuments.

“These cooperatively developed and locally driven plans restore a prosperous future to communities too often dismissed and punished by unilateral decisions of those that would not listen to the voices of Utahns,” said Casey Hammond, with the Bureau of Land Management.

In December 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to cut Grand Staircase’s acreage in half while shrinking Bears Ears by approximately 85%. Conservation organizations expressed outrage at the move and have filed numerous lawsuits arguing a president cannot undo national monument designations of previous presidents without authorization of Congress.

The federal government has moved to dismiss those lawsuits, which are pending in federal court.

Conservationists reiterated their outrage on Thursday.

“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,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director with the Center for Western Priorities. “With these plans, the administration is racing to allow new development on formerly protected public lands before the courts can overturn its illegal action.”

Environmentalists have long argued Trump’s real priority in shrinking national monuments has little to do with local control, but instead is an attempt to gift public lands to energy developers at the expense of recreation.

Critics note part of the land withdrawn from Grand Staircase includes the Kaiparowits Plateau, under which a seam of rich coal deposits lies.

Officials in Kane County, like former county commissioner and state legislator Mike Noel, haven’t been shy about expressing their desire to see a coal mine at the southern fringe of what was once Grand Staircase, saying such mining activity would benefit the local and state economy.

But others like Susan Hand, the co-owner of Willows Canyon, an outdoor store in Kanab, Utah, on the southwestern fringe of the monument, say mining activity would have a devastating effect on the booming recreation economy.

“Coal mining is not viable anymore, either economically or environmentally,” she said.

Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which is a party to one of the lawsuits against the Trump administration, said Thursday that the new plans will do harm to the land that the designation was intended to prevent.

“At Grand Staircase, Trump’s plan openly admits that it will result in the destruction of countless paleontological, cultural and ecological resources that form the backbone of why this Monument was established in the first place,” said Bloch. “One of the wildest landscapes in the lower 48 states will be lost if these plans are carried into action over the next few years.”

Native American tribes believe Bears Ears is the last of undisturbed sacred lands. (Mark Stevens)

But along with a desire to bolster the local economy and provide jobs for those who rely on natural resource extraction or grazing for jobs, there is lingering resentment in many of the conservative rural communities in Southern Utah regarding federal intrusion into land management.

Both monuments were designated by Democratic presidents — Grand Staircase by Bill Clinton in 1996 and Bears Ears by Barack Obama in 2016.

“When President Trump reduced the size of both Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, he did it with the full support of Utah’s federal delegation and the elected officials who represent those areas,” said Utah congressman Chris Stewart. “By contrast, the Obama and Clinton administrations snubbed and ignored Utah’s local, state, and federal elected officials who objected to the creation of both monuments.”

But public lands advocates say federal lands do not just belong to locals who live there but all taxpayers and note the reductions have been broadly unpopular.

“When the administration solicited public comments, more than 99% of the 2.8 million Americans who responded opposed shrinking or eliminating national monuments,” Prentice-Dunn said. “Instead of listening to the public, the Interior Department spent more than $4.6 million to develop these unnecessary plans that will inevitably be invalidated.”

Whether or not they are invalidated is up to the courts, where the acrimonious fight over the fate of these lands will ultimately be decided.