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Interior Allows for Coal Mining in Former Utah Monument Land (1)

Feb. 6, 2020, 5:02 PMUpdated: Feb. 6, 2020, 6:22 PM

The Trump administration has finalized plans to allow logging in parts of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments, and coal mining and other minerals development in areas carved out of the monuments.

Bureau of Land Management officials said Thursday that the decisions provide “certainty” for public lands in southern Utah. The fate of these public lands in the West has long been the subject of political wrangling, with some Republicans opposed to presidential use of the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect federal lands from industrial development.

President Donald Trump in 2017 shrank Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments after years of pressure from Utah lawmakers who opposed the monuments’ creation.

Trump cut the land in Bears Ears National Monument, created by President Barack Obama in 2016, from about 1.3 million acres to 200,000 acres. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created by President Bill Clinton in 1996, was cut from 1.8 million acres to about 1 million acres.

Finalizing the plans for the monuments and the areas removed from the monuments “provides certainty to local communities, business owners, permittees, and the recreating public on what activities are appropriate for those public lands,” Casey Hammond, Interior’s acting assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said Thursday on a call with reporters.

The decision doesn’t authorize the transfer or sale of public lands, he said.

In a statement Thursday, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said the management plans represent “meaningful collaboration” with people who he said were excluded when Obama and Clinton created the monuments.

“Well-funded special interest groups that aren’t from our state will spread outrageous misinformation, but the fact remains that this administration has continued to take actions that reflect the will of Utahns who call these places home,” Bishop said. He added that the Antiquities Act needs to be changed to prevent future presidents and bureaucrats from changing plans to allow more land to be protected.

Timber Harvesting Allowed

The final plan for Bears Ears National Monument calls for more than 83,000 acres—just under half of its land area—to be open to timber harvesting. The monuments are covered in forests of ponderosa pines, spruce, and fir trees, and also semi-arid woodlands of pinyon pine and juniper.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s final plan calls for widespread potential logging and off-road vehicle access across nearly the entire area. The area carved out of the monument would be open to logging and more than 650,000 acres would be open to coal mining and other mineral development, according to the final plan.

The move was part of the administration’s effort to expand fossil fuels development on federal lands nationwide, and roll back regulations that restrict mining and other industrial activities on public lands.

But Hammond said there has been very little recent interest in mining in the region, and there is little potential for oil and gas production.

Lawsuits Filed

A coalition of tribes and conservation groups sued the Trump administration in federal court after Trump’s 2017 announcement about shrinking the monuments, claiming he exceeded his authority and that the Antiquities Act doesn’t grant the president the power to shrink a monument. That litigation is ongoing.

Hammond said it’s the BLM’s responsibility to continue the public lands planning process during litigation.

“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,” he said.

With the signing of the plans, the Trump administration is “racing to allow new development” on formerly protected lands before the courts can rule on lawsuits seeking to block it, according to the Center for Western Priorities in Denver, a conservation and advocacy group.

“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, the center’s policy director.

More than 99% of respondents who gave public comment on Interior’s proposal opposed shrinking or eliminating the monuments, he said.

Instead of listening to the public, the Interior Department spent money developing “these unnecessary plans that will inevitably be invalidated,” he said.

(Revises first paragraph, adds Rep. Bishop quote, forest background, and section about lawsuits.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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