Ending Trump’s transactional arrogance on our public lands
President Trump’s drive to turn our commons over to corporations surely will die with the Biden administration.
The outgoing administration has just a few more weeks to insist on maximum industrialization of our public lands.
In his long list of harmful decisions to address, President-elect Joe Biden should start by restoring Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase national monuments — eviscerated and reduced by 85 and 50 percent respectively at the behest of extraction-obsessed Utah politicians. He’ll need to reinstate protections for Alaska’s long-held-inviolate Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (opened to leasing and drilling) and the irreplaceable Tongass old-growth temperate rainforest (released to logging). The new president will have to once again close marine sanctuaries to commercial fishing.
Biden speaks often of the existential threat of climate change, vowing to bring science back into decision-making at every agency — to mitigate damage and seek climate justice.
I fear we’ll see Trump’s agency heads pushing benighted policies (and because they were never confirmed, acting illegally) right up to Jan. 20. One recent decision is especially troublesome — for its shameless sneakiness and its disdain for the fragile integrity of the Desert West.
First, the good news. After decades of wrangling over the future of central Utah’s San Rafael Swell and Green River canyons, everyone from states-rights county commissioners to passionate conservation advocates to the national champion of America’s Red Rock Wilderness, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), found common ground. The 2019 Emery County Public Land Management Act designated more than 660,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands as wilderness — in the Muddy Creek canyons in the slick rock heart of the Swell and in Desolation and Labyrinth canyons along the Green River.
In their zeal for near-limitless drilling and maximum profits for energy corporations, the Trump administration seeks to circumvent this miraculous compromise. The BLM sold an oil and gas lease in December 2018, knowing full well that the remote location for this drill site lay within the proposed Labyrinth Canyon Wilderness. Despite outrage from the conservation community, despite inadequate environmental analysis and no public comment period, the agency issued the lease to Twin Bridges Resources in February 2019 — just a month before the president signed the Emery County Bill into law. This gave the lease the status of “pre-existing use” and so exempted the project from the Wilderness Act prohibition on roads and industrial development.
Trump’s BLM is now mounting a last-minute rush for final approval for the Twin Bridges drilling lease. The Biden administration will need to cancel this lease — one more righteous response to Trump’s misdeeds.
These wells, pumping helium rather than oil or natural gas, would industrialize a precious refuge of solitude and quiet. They would require drill pads, pipelines, road-building, and a processing plant, ripping through the fragile biological soil crust that holds the earth in place. They would violate any definition of wilderness values.
The drill site lies within lands designated under the Wilderness Act of 1964 — the most powerful protection available by law. We rejoice at every addition to “big-W wilderness,” each new designation a brake on the accelerating damage to our planet.
Since 1964, we’ve added nuances to the idea of “wilderness.” The notion of these lands as “primeval,” where “the imprint of man’s work [is] substantially unnoticeable,” fails to recognize the tenure of Native people in North America. Indigenous communities didn’t just live with “wilderness” for more than 10,000 years before colonists and settlers showed up from other continents. They paid extraordinary attention to their fellow plants and animals — interwoven in the fabric of their lives. They managed these relationships with an eye out for dependable food production, for sustainability and for constantly renewed spiritual connection.
Cynical, transactional arrogance like the Twin Bridges lease have driven management decisions in Trump’s America. The Biden administration must do better, returning science, Native traditional knowledge and restraint to stewardship of our legacy landscapes.
Stephen Trimble is a writer and photographer based in Utah, and he serves on the board of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners. His most recent book is “The Capitol Reef Reader.” @stephentrimblephoto
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