Trump’s team offers a new vision for Utah’s former Grand Staircase: Nearly 700,000 acres would be open to mining or drilling

(Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune) This May 8, 2017, photo shows Arch Canyon within Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

Most of the lands removed from southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument would be available to coal mining and oil or gas drilling under federal draft plans released Wednesday, putting nearly 700,000 acres in play that otherwise would have been off-limits to mineral extraction.

The Bureau of Land Management’s “preferred” vision for these vast stretches in Kane and Garfield counties imposes the fewest restrictions of the four alternatives studied under an environmental analysis, prompting renewed charges from green groups that President Donald Trump’s controversial order reducing the monument by half was designed to sacrifice irreplaceable natural values in the name of his quest for U.S. "energy dominance.”

“The lands Trump tried to cut out of the Staircase have an ‘open for business’ sign on them. Off-road vehicles, coal mining, drilling and other activities that without a doubt would destroy monument objects would be allowed,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Even in areas that remain in the monument, the plan would drive down protections to the lowest common denominator that would result in damage to culture sites, paleontological resources, and riparian areas and wilderness.”

On Wednesday, the BLM posted draft management plans for Utah’s two large national monuments that Trump slashed in response to pleas from state and county officials to shrink or erase monuments designated by his Democratic predecessors.

The agency also posted thousands of pages of analysis for the plans that outline new management programs for the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, as well as a 98-page minerals report for Staircase that details the rich deposits of coal, oil and gas, tar sands and other minerals under the former monument’s 1.9 million-acre footprint.

“It’s been nearly 20 years since the public has had the unique opportunity to help shape the future of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — the BLM’s first-ever national monument,” the agency’s Utah director, Ed Roberson, said in a news release. “Developing new management plans is an exciting challenge and a serious responsibility that is shared by everyone who cares about these lands.”

Critics of the monument reductions say the BLM is jumping the gun because numerous groups are legally challenging Trump’s action. If they prevail in invalidating the smaller monuments, the agency might have to jettison the drafts and start over.

“SUWA is not going to rest until Trump’s unlawful order is overturned, and we are going to do whatever it takes to make sure these plans never get implemented,” Bloch added. “It’s an entire waste of time. It’s clear that they are trying to race ahead and do as much damage as they can in the shortest time possible.”

The BLM’s preferred Staircase plan targets about 1,600 acres for “disposal," meaning the agency wants to sell these 16 parcels to neighboring property owners, even though Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke previously indicated no public land would be transferred out of federal hands as a result of the monument reductions.

The Utah Tribal Leaders Association, which is not a party in the suits, agrees the BLM should holster Bears Ears planning until after the courts have decided the legality of Trump’s action to reduce the monuments. Five consolidated suits are pending in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., where a judge is weighing whether to transfer them to the Utah federal court at the request of state officials.

“The U.S. federal government is engaged in an expedited planning process of the Shash Jaa’ and Indian Creek units that cannot conduct adequate environmental and cultural reviews and engage in meaningful tribal consultations within the proposed time frame,” the association said in a resolution passed Aug. 9. The group supports protecting the 1.9 million acres five American Indian tribes initially proposed for the Bears Ears monument and advocates restoring the smaller 1.35 million-acre monument then-President Barack Obama designated under the Antiquities Act.

The BLM began the planning effort in January, just weeks after Trump’s order in hopes of having final plans in place by year’s end.

“We’ve been on the ground working with and listening to local communities, stakeholders and the public,” said BLM District Manager Lance Porter, who oversees Bears Ears, “and we have identified a variety of options to meet the challenges of providing quality recreation experiences for visitors, facilitating uses like grazing or gathering firewood, and protecting the natural and cultural resources that we are entrusted to manage.”

The Bears Ears plan’s four alternatives range from minimal change in management to providing “maximum management flexibility,” while protecting archaeological and natural values.

The public has until Nov. 15 to submit comments on the two environmental impact statements posted Wednesday.

“We want to hear from you,” said Harry Barber, acting Staircase monument manager. “This review period provides an important opportunity for you to influence the decision-making process. The alternatives in the draft EIS address the challenges of protecting natural and cultural resources, including objects of prehistoric, paleontological, historic and scientific interest within the monument, while also addressing multiple uses of public lands.”

Salt Lake Tribune requests for comment emailed to officials in Kane and Garfield counties were not returned Wednesday.

County leaders have long argued the monument, designated in 1996, has strangled economic development and emptied Escalante High School of students. While tourism businesses have thrived in towns surrounding Grand Staircase, elected leaders want to see job growth associated with logging, mining and other “multiple use” industries that employ people year-round and offer better pay.

The Staircase EIS projects the preferred alternative would result in an uptick of employment worth 503 jobs and $8.6 million in annual labor income as a result of increased potential for extractive industries. However, that’s not much more than the environmentally protective alternatives, which foresee about 400 jobs and $7 million in labor growth.

“The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument already has a plan that should remain in place, continuing to protect the priceless antiquities within its borders, at least until a court rules on the legality of the Trump reduction,” said Nicole Croft of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners.

The BLM is producing two plans for Bears Ears, one each for two noncontiguous units, Shash Jaa’ and Indian Creek, totaling 202,000 acres, and four plans for Grand Staircase. That monument will get one plan each for its three units — Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits and Escalante Canyons — and a fourth for the 900,000 acres removed from the monument and to be administered by the agency’s Kanab field office.

The Bears Ears plan does not address the 1.1 million acres Trump whacked from that monument, lands that include the archaeologically rich Cedar Mesa. Those lands will continue to be managed under the BLM’s Monticello field office’s 2008 plan, which allows for mineral development in many areas, while lands within the reduced monument will remain off-limits to future mineral leasing and claims.