A report on monuments showed the benefits of Utah’s Grand Staircase — but then the feds blacked out those portions

Southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has helped shield archaeological sites from vandalism, bolstered tourism and spurred scientific discovery during the two decades since its designation — all without displacing cattle operations that have long used these public lands in Kane and Garfield counties.

That’s what the Bureau of Land Management wrote in a report released earlier this month.

The next day, however, the agency released redacted documents that downplayed those benefits and, in doing so, painted a picture that the monument might not be necessary to protect the resources within its 1.9 million-acre boundaries.

The BLM pulled back that 23-page report and others, part of a massive document drop, saying they were released in error, The Washington Post first reported. It then released redacted versions.

“You have the secretary being warned, ‘If you get rid of the national monument protections in Grand Staircase-Escalante, you will be leaving sacred Native American sites unprotected, and there is no way to replace those protections with the existing patchwork of laws,” said Aaron Weiss, media director for the left-leaning Center for Western Priorities, which had downloaded the unredacted report. “They were really clear about that. Then they tried to hide that from the American people in the document dump.”

Critics contend the redactions were made because the material undermined Interior’s rationale for shrinking monuments and offer proof that the outcome of Zinke’s monument review was preordained with an eye toward mineral extraction on lands struck from Grand Staircase and Bears Ears national monuments.

Acting on Zinke’s recommendations last year, President Donald Trump reduced the Grand Staircase by about half and Bears Ears by 85 percent, sparking a host of lawsuits from tribal, environmental and scientific groups. Zinke recommended boundary reductions or management changes to several other monuments outside Utah, but the White House has yet to act on those recommendations.

Critics of the monument-reduction campaign chided Interior for ignoring the Grand Staircase’s ability to drive economic development.

“The fact that the Trump administration places no value on the booming recreation economy that generates over $887 billion annually is no surprise to those of us who have been watching their shameful record of exploiting our public lands over the last two years,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., ranking member of the Senate Energy Committee. “This ‘drill at all costs’ approach is wrong for our economy and wrong for the environment.”

In redacting many of the documents, Interior cited a provision of the Freedom of Information Act that protects materials that speak to internal deliberations. The key part redacted from the Grand Staircase report describes things that would not have occurred were it not for the monument’s 1996 designation by then-President Bill Clinton.

This passage said fewer cultural sites, which contain artifacts left by prehistoric American Indians as well as by the Paiutes and white pioneers who followed, would have been inventoried without the monument. Before its creation, the monument saw an average of 72 sites a year inventoried. It has averaged 161 sites in the years since. Even so, less than 7 percent of the monument has been surveyed for cultural sites. Besides increased site surveys, the BLM has stepped up research and educational outreach.

“More vandalism would have likely occurred without Monument designation,” the redacted language stated. “Education, increased presence of staff and research and improved management likely led to the reduction in the numbers of sites looted and rock art panels defaced.”

The redacted document also blacks out a passage expressing doubts about whether legal alternatives, such as the National Historic Preservation Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, could effectively protect the monument’s cultural and scientific treasures scattered across a vast landscape.

“Protection would likely occur on a site-by-site basis or resource-by-resource basis and also would take a significant amount of time to accomplish under those various laws,” it stated. “These laws may not provide a mechanism to protect all cultural or tribal resources in the [monument]."

This passage stated that monument status has had no bearing on livestock use, which has persisted despite assertions by leaders in Kane and Garfield counties that the Grand Staircase’s strict management guidelines have pushed out ranchers.

“Although grazing use levels have varied considerably from year to year due to factors like drought,” it stated, “no reductions in permitted livestock grazing use have been made as a result of the Monument designation.”

The unredacted document details the monument’s large hydrocarbon deposits, such as 2.6 trillion to 10.5 trillion cubic feet of coal-bed methane, tar sands deposits that hold 550 million barrels of oil, and more than 11 billion tons of coal that could be recovered under the Kaiparowits Plateau.

Critics believe the agency abused a FOIA exemption to hide information that failed to support the argument that large monuments are unnecessary and harm local communities.

“That is factual information that should not be redacted,” Weiss said.

Even so, crucial portions of the Grand Staircase report — ones that undercut Trump’s rationale for reducing the Utah monuments — were not redacted. For example, it affirmed that lands inside the original monument remain available for multiple use, such as hunting, grazing, recreation and access to existing mineral leases and claims. Mineral extraction no longer occurs at the monument outside the Upper Valley oil field west of Escalante, where annual production has slowed from 66,000 barrels at the time of the monument’s establishment to 45,000 barrels in 2016.

The document lauds “a plethora of paleontological specimens” that have come off the Kaiparowits Plateau, including a dozen new dinosaur species.

The BLM’s Utah director, Ed Roberson, last week helped unveil the latest, an armored dinosaur, at the Natural History Museum of Utah in an address that celebrated the federal agency’s role in conserving scientific resources and its partnerships with the academic institutions that study them.

“In the 20 years since Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was designated, a wealth of scientific knowledge has been discovered,” the report said, “with significant archaeological, paleontological, biological, ecological and geological discoveries on the Monument.”

According to the report, 926,000 people visited the monument in 2016. This visitation generated nearly $61 million in expenditures that support 1,024 nonfederal jobs in the region for a total economic output of $91 million.