Energy & Environment

Trump slashes Utah land protections


President Trump on Monday shrank two massive, controversial national monuments in Utah, potentially opening thousands of acres to drilling, mining and grazing.

The reductions erase efforts to preserve the monuments by President Obama and President Clinton, and represent the largest-ever rollback of protected areas in history, environmental groups say.

Trump signed two proclamations, one scaling back Obama’s 1.4-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument to 220,000 acres — an 84 percent reduction — and another reducing Clinton’s 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to 1 million acres. 

{mosads}Both monuments in southern Utah have long been opposed by state leaders. Obama and Clinton created them under the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents authority to unilaterally protect any federally owned area from development, with few restrictions.

“Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington. And guess what? They’re wrong,” Trump said during a visit to Salt Lake City where he made the announcement.

“The families and communities of Utah know and love this land the best and you know the best how to take care of your land.”

Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante had been at the center of a national debate over monuments and their permanence, fueled by an executive order earlier this year in which Trump asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review dozens of previously created monuments.

“Past administrations have severely abused the purpose, spirit and intent of a century-old law known as the Antiquities Act. This law requires that only the smallest necessary area be set aside for special protection as national monuments,” Trump said.

“Unfortunately, previous administrations have ignored the standards and used the law to lock up hundreds of millions of acres of land and water under strict government control.”

Trump made the announcement in the Utah State Capitol alongside the state’s entire Republican congressional delegation. Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch both spoke before Trump, praising his decision.

“President Trump is many things: he’s the commander in chief, the master dealmaker, and a wildly successful billionaire,” said Hatch, 83, whom Trump is urging to run for reelection next year.

“But he’s also a man who comes through on his commitments to the people of Utah.”

Trump has the support of conservatives and industries that want to use the land.

“We are grateful that today’s action will allow ranchers to resume their role as responsible stewards of the land and drivers of rural economies,” Craig Uden, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a statement.

But Trump faced immediate backlash from environmentalists and American Indian tribes who say his actions threaten sensitive, culturally significant areas. They also see it as an attack more generally on public lands and conservation.

“This is nothing more than political score settling from an administration that doesn’t seem to comprehend the extraordinary value these lands hold for Native American communities and all Americans,” Brian Sybert, executive director of Conservation Lands Foundation, said in a statement.

“Make no mistake: the near elimination of these national treasures is beyond belief. These lands belong to the people, not corporate polluters.”

The administration is certain to be sued immediately, likely by the Navajo Nation. Legal experts, greens and nearby Indian tribes say the Antiquities Act gives presidents authority to create national monuments, but not to make significant cuts to them or abolish them altogether.

The argument has never been tested in the federal courts, because although past presidents have shrunk monuments, no one has sued to stop those actions. Trump’s supporters say he has an inherent right to reduce monuments, since he can create them at will.

Monday’s announcement is the first formal action from a comprehensive review Zinke led of more than two dozen large monuments. Zinke has reportedly recommended reductions and changes to other national monuments, but the administration has declined to make those recommendations to Trump public.

“The president does not have the legal authority to issue an order to shrink national monuments, nor does he have the authority to open these stunning, protected landscapes up to dirty coal mining and oil drilling,” said Heidi McIntosh, Rocky Mountains attorney for Earthjustice. “This isn’t a ‘land grab’ — it’s more like a land giveaway to the fossil fuel industry.”

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R), the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, has introduced a bill to put new restrictions on monument declarations under the law. His committee approved the bill in October.

Reforming the Antiquities Act has been a longtime goal for many Republicans and industry groups in the West. Conservatives argue the law, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, gives the president too much control over public land preservation, while ranchers, energy firms and others argue they could use the land to grow their businesses. 

Obama created Bears Ears in December 2016 to “protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes.”

The monument creation came after decades of calls by American Indian tribes and conservationists to protect the land and culturally significant landscapes from development and damage.

The idea of protecting at least some of the area had bipartisan support for years, but Obama said he decided to designate the monument after Congress failed to act.

Clinton created Grand Staircase, the largest land national monument in the country, in the heat of the 1996 presidential election season. It was designated largely to protect the unique desert ecosystems from the threat of a potential coal mine.

Bruce Babbitt, Clinton’s Interior secretary who oversaw the creation of Grand Staircase, recently said the monument roll-backs make Trump a “vandal in our midst, coming in person to lay waste to the land.” 


Tags Antiquities Act Bears Ears National Monument Earthjustice Escalante National Monument Mike Lee Native American Orrin Hatch Rob Bishop Ryan Zinke Ryan Zinke Utah

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