Western members of Congress to Trump: Erase Utah’s Bears Ears, 8 other monuments

Letter from Congressional Western Caucus — not signed by members of Utah’s delegation — highlights lost access to oil, gas and coal reserves.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bears Ears mountain as seen from the Comb Ridge near Bluff, Utah, Thursday, December 29, 2016.

A group of Republican congressional members is pressuring the White House to eliminate or shrink most of the 27 national monuments under review by the Trump administration, including Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

The lawmakers, led by Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, are calling on the president “to think big and act big-league,” rescind nine of the 22 land monuments, including the Utah sites, being examined by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and make severe reductions to nine others.

Zinke’s monument review is part of a sweeping reassessment by Trump of prior presidents’ use of the Antiquities Act setting aside public land.

But Utah’s three members of the House of Representatives — all vocal monument critics — are conspicuously absent from the list of 24 signatories to the caucus’s Nov. 9 letter to President Donald Trump, which mischaracterizes how Bears Ears was designated and goes way beyond what Utah leaders have sought.

“The story of these monuments is one in which a former President — hoping to cement his legacy, or bowing to pressure from special-interest groups — unilaterally sequesters away thousands and even millions of acres of land from use by the stroke of a pen,” says the letter, which goes onto castigate designations by Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton that have victimized Utah.

“Though Congressional reform of the Antiquities Act is in order,” the letter says, “executive review can right many past wrongs immediately.”

The caucus promotes greater local control and resource development for the West’s broad reaches of public lands.

Its letter alleges the “concept” for a Bears Ears designation “arose from a brain-trust meeting [in 2015] of environmental groups in San Francisco,” ignoring the fact that Obama designated the monument at the request of five tribes with ancestral and cultural ties to the landscape in San Juan County. The monument proposal was under development by a grass-roots Navajo group for several years before the meeting referenced by the letter.

After his review this summer, Zinke recommended reductions to Bears Ears, Grand Straircase and two other Western monuments, according to a leaked memo to the White House. But Zinke’s specific recommendations have yet to be disclosed.

Trump recently told Utah leaders he will visit San Juan County next month to announce Bears Ears will be reduced in size and that coal mining will be allowed in the Grand Staircase, where a vast deposit lies out of reach thanks to the 1996 proclamation establishing that monument.

While Utah leaders applaud Trump’s promises, none of Utah’s House members signed the Congressional Western Caucus letter, even though Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart hold leadership positions in the group and Rep. Mia Love is a member. Rep. John Curtis, elected last week to succeed Jason Chaffetz and whose district includes the two Utah monuments, will be sworn in Monday.

The Tribune reached out to Bishop’s and Stewart’s offices for comment. While Stewart’s office did not respond, Bishop’s gave a terse statement.

“Due to Congressman Bishop chairing the House Natural Resources Committee, we are in constant contact with the Administration,” spokesman Lee Lonsberry wrote in an email. “Believe me, they know where we stand on the monument issue.”

At his monthly news conference Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert said he expects Trump’s moves to shrink the monuments will be the result of a “grand compromise” in which all sides in the bitter monuments debate will both get and lose some of what they want.

Herbert blasted pro-monument advocates for raising alarms over energy development on the monuments.

“There is no oil and gas [in Bears Ears],” the Utah governor said. “That’s another myth being perpetuated by those who don’t want to have a shrinkage of the monument.”

Actually, anti-monument forces are promoting the hydrocarbon potential “locked up” under both monuments. In direct conflict with Herbert’s statement, the caucus’ letter highlights access to oil and gas as a rationale for erasing the Bears Ears monument.

The letter cites a source claiming that “90% of Bears Ears sits above potential oil and gas leases.” And a critical sin of the Grand Staircase designation, according to the letter, was the lost access to recoverable deposits of low-sulfur, high-energy coal, which the Utah Geological Survey estimates at 9 billion tons.

“Utah taxpayers saw more that $2 billion mineral lease royalties and 60 percent of their known coal reserves disappear before their eyes,” the letter states. “Maintaining the status quo of the monument has already had disastrous effects on Utah’s education, grazing, and energy sectors.”

Also on the letter’s hit list are Arizona’s Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Canyon-Parashunt monuments, both of which lie just below Utah’s southern border and harbor uranium deposits.