Feds announce new meetings on the future of Utah’s redrawn national monuments

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Sandstone walls tower over a beaver dam in Calf Creek, part of the former Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Bureau of Land Management has announced a series of public meetings in southern Utah seeking input on management of the revised Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

More than three months after President Donald Trump ordered the reduction of Utah’s two large national monuments, the Interior Department has scheduled meetings in the state to gather public feedback on how the redrawn monuments will be managed.

The Bureau of Land Management has started crafting a plan for the Bears Ears National Monument, originally designated in 2016 by President Barack Obama, along with revising a long-standing plan for the older Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, breaking it into as many as four separate plans.

The agency will hold four “scoping” meetings the week of March 26 in the adjacent Utah towns of Blanding, Bluff, Kanab and Escalante to identify key issues and planning criteria for two environmental impact statements (EIS), but monument supporters say the BLM should holster its planning process until the courts resolve lawsuits seeking the monuments’ restoration.

That said, those groups are also promising to fully engage with the BLM process to get their concerns on the record.

“Our participation should in no way be construed as support of this,” said Nicole Croft, executive director of the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners. “There is no reason they need to move forward with such haste.”

County officials in southern Utah hailed Trump’s Dec. 4 orders reducing the monuments as great victories for rural communities that have long been burdened by what they say are unnecessary, even counterproductive federal oversight of public lands to the detriment of traditional ways of life.

Some hope that the monument planning process will help restore local influence in land management in ways that protect grazing, improve public access and free up minerals.

Pro-monument advocates, however, are incensed with the limited number of scoping meetings announced and what they see as a narrow timeframe for public comment.

Scoping meetings on Utah’s national monuments<br>(All running from 4:30 to 8 p.m.)<br>More info on the Web<br>Bears Ears<br>• March 26, Blanding, San Juan High School, 311 N. 100 East<br>• March 27, Bluff Community Center, 300 East and Mulberry Bluff Road<br><br>Public comments will be accepted through April 13 or directly through the project webpage, mailed to P.O. Box 7 Monticello, UT 84535, or emailed to blm_ut_monticello_monuments@blm.gov.<br>Grand Staircase-Escalante<br>• March 28, Kanab Middle School, 690 S. Cowboy Way<br>• March 29, Canyon Country Lodge, 760 E. Highway 12, Escalante<br>Public comments will be accepted through April 13. The can be submitted through the project webpage, mailed to 669 S Highway 89A, Kanab, UT 84741 or emailed to BLM_UT_CCD_monuments@blm.gov

Officials conducted a much more robust public process in 1996 for planning for the then-newly designated Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: The Clinton administration held 15 meetings in seven states over two months.

“Millions of Americans have already voiced their concerns about exploiting national monuments, yet this administration fails to recognize science, economic impacts, cultural history or the law when it comes to managing lands already named national monuments,” said Nada Culver, senior counsel for The Wilderness Society. “There is nothing ‘public,’ or legal, about the meetings they plan to hold.”

Culver and other critics fear Interior is rushing to get lands holding fossil-fuel deposits back under lease to private industry quickly, before the courts have a chance to revoke Trump’s action and put the minerals off limits again.

At stake for the Staircase region straddling the Garfield and Kane county line is whether to reopen hundreds of miles of roads that were closed to motorized use under the prior monument plan. Also in play are rich coal and oil deposits that were carefully carved out of the monument’s desolate Kaiparowits Plateau unit, also home to major dinosaur discoveries.

Those deposits were reopened to mineral entry beginning Feb. 2, but BLM officials say they cannot be leased for development until a new management plan is in place for the 862,000 acres removed from the monument.

The BLM is developing four new plans for the downsized monument: one for each of the monument’s three units — Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits and Escalante Canyons — and a fourth for lands removed from the monument.

Crafting separate management plans for each is inefficient and unnecessarily complicates land use, particularly for ranchers whose allotments would be spread across two or more monument units, according to Croft.

“This is the most wasteful organizational strategy I have ever seen,” she said. “It is either purposely wasteful to bleed resources away from actually managing the land, or it’s a proposal brought by people who don’t know anything about land management.”

Trump’s Grand Staircase proclamation foreshadowed what may be in store for the revised monument. It states that the Interior secretary “may” reopen roads that were available for motorized use at the time the monument was designated in 1996. The current plan closes hundreds of miles of such routes to motorized use, which is a major sore point for local officials.

Trump’s proclamations also reaffirm that monument status won’t affect livestock grazing, which will continue to be governed by applicable laws and regulations. Monument staff tried and failed several times over past two decades to develop a management plan for grazing.

Planning will be much different for Bears Ears, which has yet to be managed as a national monument. Signage for the new monument was produced, but officials refrained from installing it in anticipation of Trump’s action to change the boundaries at the request of Utah’s political leaders.

Not subject to the latest planning process are the 1.15 million acres stripped from Bears Ears, lands that include Cedar Mesa, Dark Canyon, Elk Ridge, Mancos Mesa and Valley of the Gods. Those are to be managed under the existing 2008 resource management plan for the BLM’s Monticello field office and Manti-La Sal National Forest plan.

The Bears Ears environmental impact statement will cover only the 200,000 acres remaining in the monument in two noncontiguous units, one at Indian Creek and the other for the area around Bears Ears Buttes. The Trump proclamation renames the unit Shash Jaa, the Navajo term for Bears Ears. Covering Comb Ridge, Arch and Mule canyons, it includes two distant pieces of land at Moon House and Doll House ruins, both considered world-class archaeological sites.

The Bears Ears meetings will be March 26 in Blanding and March 27 in Bluff; the Staircase meeting will be March 28 in Kanab and March 29 in Escalante. Public comments must be submitted by mid-April. Additional opportunities for public comment will arise after the BLM releases draft environmental studies.

The Wilderness Society and Grand Staircase Escalante Partners are among several science, environmental and tribal groups that filed suits in Washington, D.C., seeking to revoke Trump’s action. The suits are now consolidated under U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, but state and federal officials are urging the judge to transfer the cases to U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, various sportsmen groups are seeking to intervene in the Bears Ears cases, claiming the restoration of the monument would limit hunting opportunities and wildlife conservation.

Likewise, the Farm Bureau seeks to intervene in the Grand Staircase suit, claiming that the monument disrupts ranching operations.