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Interior approves final management plans for Bears Ears, Grand Staircase

Move brings roar of criticism but high praise from Utah officials

The Bears Ears area on June 2, 2016.
The Bears Ears area on June 2, 2016.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Department of Interior approved final management plans for the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante areas on Thursday, a move critics say will open former monument lands to drilling, mining and other industry activity but one praised by top Utah politicians that it rightly restores multiple use of public lands.

Environmental groups complained the Trump administration should have waited for the outcome of lawsuits challenging the monument reductions made by President Donald Trump in 2017, but an Interior Department official said that wasn’t practical.

Casey Hammond, Interior’s acting assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said if the agency had to wait to act until litigation was settled, “we would never be able to do much of anything around here.”

The plans impacting lands in the Grand Staircase region eliminate grazing along the Escalante River but do allow for minerals extraction in former monument lands. Grazing was also eliminated in some regions of the former Bears Ears monument, now named Shash Jaa, including Butler Wash and Comb Wash. The Bears Ears documents are available on the Interior’s e-planning website.

The new plans for Grand Staircase and the Kanab Escalante Planning Area are also available.

Hammond, in a morning teleconference, said despite assertions to the contrary, there is little interest by industry in oil and gas development in the regions, and the final management plans do nothing to change the status of the federal lands, which won’t be “sold off.”

“Any suggestion these lands and resources will be adversely impacted by being excluded from monument status is certainly not true,” he said. “There’s very little interest in mineral development on these lands.”

The new plans drew praise from some of Utah’s top elected officials, including Gov. Gary Herbert.

“As the Antiquities Act itself states, and as I have reiterated for years, monuments should be as small as possible to protect artifacts and cultural resources,” he said. “And they should not be created over the objections of local communities. I’m happy to see the administration develop management plans that protect areas with sensitive artifacts and yet still provide a way to use these lands for recreation, grazing and management practices that will keep the lands healthy.”

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, had similar praise.

“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,” Stewart said. “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. Thanks to this administration’s attitude toward local input, these new plans will benefit Utahns.”

But environmental groups blasted the plans.

“Today’s announcement from the administration doubles down on the biggest rollback of protected lands in our nation’s history,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president of the National Wildlife Federation.

“This illegal decimation of the Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument opens up Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni ancestral lands to development that could degrade wildlife habitat, threaten cultural sites and expose communities in southern Utah to unacceptable pollution and health risks,” Stone-Manning said. “We look forward to the day when the rightful boundaries of these two monuments are restored.”

The Southern Utah Wilderness Association echoed that sentiment, and said the “final” plans are anything but.

“Our members and the public should rest assured that these management plans will not be the final chapter for the management of these remarkable public lands. We are confident that the lawsuits challenging President Trump’s unlawful attack of the monuments will succeed and these plans, which are the fruit of Trump’s poisonous actions, will be undone,” said Stephen Bloch, the group’s legal director.

The Utah Sierra Club said the monument reductions were just a ploy by the Trump administration to extract natural resources.

“The motivation all along has been to exploit public lands to benefit the dirty fuel industry, regardless of the cultural, natural and economic costs. That’s not a price Utahns are willing to pay,” said Carly Ferro, the organization’s interim director.

Hammond said the former monument lands remain subject to restrictions imposed by a host of federal laws, including those intended to safeguard cultural resources, endangered species and paleontology.

In 2017, Trump cut Grand Staircase-Escalante from 1.8 million acres to about 1 million acres and broke it into three separate areas. He slashed and split the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears into Shash Jaa and Indian Creek national monuments, totaling 201,876 acres.

In the days that followed, multiple groups and Native American tribes sued the Trump administration to overturn his actions. The litigation is pending in federal court.