Hundreds of thousands of acres inside what used to be Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument will be opened to mining and drilling under a plan the Bureau of Land Management released Friday, renewing charges that President Donald Trump’s executive action reducing the 23-year-old preserve was engineered to promote energy extraction in some of America’s most scenic landscapes.
The plans also greatly expand access for recreation on lands remaining in the monument, with expanded visitor services and signs, group size limits lifted to as many as 50 people, and allowing competitive sporting events, such as next month’s Grand to Grand Ultra footrace, which currently is routed outside the monument.
Friday’s release comes on the heels of the final management plan for Bears Ears National Monument, the other big preserve Trump eviscerated a year into his presidency.
The Staircase plan encompasses much more territory, 1.9 million acres, nearly half of which had been managed as a monument for two decades. It is actually four plans: one each for the three units remaining in the monument — Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits Plateau and Escalante Canyons — and a fourth for the 900,000 acres Trump removed.
“These management plans seek to cement the Trump administration legacy of destroying the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “That seems to be the objective certainly for excluded lands, which are going to be in large part available for mineral leasing and extractive development. To make matters worse, the BLM is going to prioritize motorized recreation across a large swath of the original 1.9 million acres.”
The move to shrink the monument came at the behest of leaders in Garfield and Kane counties. They have long argued that the monument is strangling rural communities rimming the vast monument, even as their local economies became more tourist dependent in the years since President Bill Clinton designated the Grand Staircase in 1996.
Garfield County Commission Chairman Leland Pollock praised the BLM's planning process in an interview Thursday, saying the agency's Kanab field office worked diligently to craft a "workable plan."
Like most local leaders, Pollock is eager to see “multiple use” management restored to the swaths taken from the monument and improved signs and visitor services on the remaining lands. He believes the new plans will accomplish these goals, along with more aggressive management of the landscape, which he argues is in poor condition after years of neglect.
“You have areas that are not healthy,” Pollock said. “There are a lot of areas that need to be recovered. There is a lot of land where there’s rabbitbrush, a noxious invasive weed, as far as you can see. Decadent sagebrush. There is soil erosion that needs to be addressed.”
The massive document released Friday is a final version of a draft environmental impact statement that had analyzed four alternatives. A “no action” alternative would keep the old monument plan in place, while the others provided various levels of protection of the landscape’s natural and cultural resources. The BLM identified the least protective alternative as its “preferred” vision — to the dismay of environmentalists, recreationists and scientists.
“We really focused on the recreation needs and the changes in recreation. In the last 20 years, visitation has changed drastically. Recreation is a big part of what we’re trying to manage under this plan,” BLM spokeswoman Kim Finch said. 'We’ve identified key focus areas for recreation, signage, visitor services. Improving the visitor experience has been on our minds for a while."
While the plan could allow mineral development on up to 700,000 acres yanked from the monument, Finch noted that it was Trump’s proclamation that paved the way for mining claims and gas leases on those lands.
Since the monument reduction, 19 mining claims have been filed, Finch said, but no energy company has asked to lease these lands in pursuit of their rich deposits of oil, gas and coal.
A supporter of extractive industries, Pollock said he doesn’t anticipate seeing any mines or drill rigs on former monument lands “in my lifetime,” given the arduous environmental process any new project would face.
The BLM’s newly preferred alternative contains a few elements that provide greater protections inside the monument than the previous draft, such as some motorized route closures and a prohibition on casual fossil collecting, except in designated spots. It also features several special recreation management zones, but for the most part it “would emphasize resource use and reduce constraints while ensuring the proper care and management of monument objects.”
According to acting monument manager Harry Barber, the final plan reflects extensive public response to the draft the BLM released last year, with an eye toward balancing competing interests.
“There are people who graze livestock, people that like to hunt, people that like to hike, people that like to trail run,” Barber told The Associated Press. “We are trying to be fair.”
He noted lands now outside the monument will still be subject to rules and polices like all federally managed land.
“It’s not a free-for-all,” he told the AP. “That seems to be what I hear a lot — people feeling like now anybody can go out and do anything they want to do on these lands. But they need to realize that we still have our rules and policies.”
‘What’s in it for me?’
Tribal, science and environmental groups have filed multiple lawsuits challenging Trump’s authority to unilaterally decrease the two Utah national monuments. They are being actively litigated in federal court in Washington.
The plaintiff groups have argued that the BLM should wait until these cases are resolved before moving forward with new management plans, especially for the Grand Staircase, whose 1.9 million original acres have been managed under a comprehensive plan for more than 20 years. If the courts reverse Trump’s actions, the new management plans could be invalidated.
Several conservation groups fear the new Staircase plan will allow for the return of livestock grazing to the stretch of the Escalante River corridor remaining in the monument. This delicate canyon bottom became cow-free 20 years ago after agreements were reached between federal and state officials, ranchers and conservationists, according to Scott Berry, vice president of the nonprofit Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, one of the groups suing to reverse the monument reduction.
“Currently, we enjoy the magnificent landscapes of the West that were set aside for protection and conservation by previous generations,” Berry said. “Today, we turn our back on that tradition in favor of the ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude of our current political leaders.”
Theresa Pierno, president of National Parks Conservation Association, said the lands in the original monument are “unparalleled” in the natural and scenic wonders they contain, including Cretaceous dinosaur fossil deposits, soaring plateaus and winding canyons. She contends the new plan hands the lands removed from the monument “to the highest bidder,” even though this terrain connects three beloved geological treasures: Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Glen Canyon.
“It shields rock formations and wildlife from harm and provides visitors with opportunities to experience intense quiet and solitude,” Pierno said in a prepared statement. "Despite the monument’s value to the region and the millions of people who have fought to protect it, the Trump administration is greenlighting destructive development, including mining and drilling, that will forever change this landscape and all we stand to learn from and experience here.”
While Republicans in Utah’s congressional delegation have been supportive of the BLM’s planning direction, the Democratic chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee on Friday denounced the new Staircase plans as a “shameless giveaway campaign" and “a dangerous precedent.”
“The Trump administration is wasting taxpayer dollars that should go to protecting our public lands and using them to open important places to destructive fossil fuel extraction,” said Rep Raúl Grijalva of Arizona. “Never mind the climate, never mind the law, never mind public opinion. They continue to destroy our protected places for the benefit of their industry friends."
The BLM posted a final environmental impact statement Friday, opening a 30-day protest period. The agency is also accepting public comment for the next 60 days on a peripheral proposal to keep monument lands open to recreational target shooting except within a quarter-mile of a residence, campground or other “developed recreation facilities.”