The Trump administration approved new management plans Thursday for the reduced Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, land-use road maps that could pave the way for more mining and drilling in southern Utah while providing, critics say, minimal protection to the cultural and natural treasures their designations were meant to safeguard.
The final plans largely reflect the preferred alternatives released last summer.
One noteworthy difference: The Bureau of Land Management reversed its proposal to return livestock grazing along some 40 miles of the Escalante River, a notion that drew fire from the groups that invested heavily in restoring the fragile desert corridor. With backing from Utah officials, the BLM previously had removed cattle from the river running through the Escalante Canyons portion of the Staircase monument and it has since become a popular hiking destination.
“A silver lining on a very dark day,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “That was the right decision, but there are still a lot of problems with grazing in the [Grand Staircase] monument on lands where it had been eliminated and retired.”
SUWA is among the numerous groups suing to invalidate President Donald Trump’s 2017 order reducing the monuments by a combined 2 million acres.
Officials with the Interior Department and the BLM on Thursday unveiled the three management plans, one for each monument and a third for the 860,000 acres axed from the Staircase, lands now part of the reconfigured Paria River District.
“The approved plans keep the commitment of this administration to the families and communities of Utah that know and love this land the best and will care for these resources for many generations to come,” said Casey Hammond, Interior's acting assistant secretary for land and minerals management. “These cooperatively developed and locally driven plans restore a prosperous future to communities too often dismissed and punished by unilateral decisions of those that would not listen to the voices of Utahns.”
Interior’s news release announcing the new plans spells out numerous negative impacts the Trump administration alleges arose from the original Bears Ears and Staircase monuments, including the unsupported claim that the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which held about 150,000 acres within the Staircase boundaries, “lost more than $17 billion.”
In reality, SITLA swapped those scattered inholdings, which were producing little revenue, for federals lands it has since put to profitable use elsewhere in the state. A similar arrangement was envisioned for state trust lands in President Barack Obama’s 2016 proclamation establishing Bears Ears National Monument.
The Staircase plan replaces the one adopted two decades ago after President Bill Clinton’s 1996 designation of 1.9 million acres in Kane and Garfield counties.
Garfield County commissioners said the new plan fixes “problems” with the original plan, which they maintain made it impossible to develop recreational amenities and ignored the concerns of local officials.
“This plan increases access for the visiting public, does a better job at managing, preserving and interpreting sensitive resources, and allows federal agencies more flexibility in restoring the productive health of our federal lands,” the commissioners said in a joint statement thanking the BLM. "We are no longer forgotten.”
Removal of juniper and pinyon forests, often done to clear land for grazing or fire management, will be allowed within the boundaries of the smaller monuments. Strict limits on visitors have in some cases been rolled back, more than doubling the size of groups allowed to enter areas with cultural resources, such as the River House cliff dwelling near the San Juan River.
“The [Bears Ears] plan released today reveals that it is actually worse than the [draft] plan we protested last year,” said Josh Ewing, executive director of the conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa. “One truly positive element that was previously proposed, a provision to have hikers pack out their excrement from the Comb Ridge and other highly visited areas, was removed. This disappointing change means the significant problem of human waste will continue to be a public health issue. It also shows enormous disrespect for cultural sites and the indigenous people who consider them to be sacred.”
Utah Diné Bikéyah — an indigenous-led pro-monument group — also dismissed the Bears Ears plan as another example of the federal government ignoring the sovereignty of the five tribes that proposed Bears Ears and are now suing to restore the monument.
“Our concern, among other things, is that the [plan] fails to include proper cultural and environmental protections, and leaves out the voice of tribes and the elders who hold the most knowledge for these ancestral, public lands,” said Davis Filfred, the group’s board chairman.
While lands that remain in the monuments are off-limits to mineral development, large tracts removed from the Staircase will be available to extraction if the courts uphold Trump’s order. These excluded lands, mostly on the Kaiparowits Plateau, are known to hold vast reserves of coal and lesser amounts of oil, as well as uranium on Cedar Mesa.
“These plans are the fruit of the poisonous tree, and we are confident they will be swept aside,” Bloch said. He was not alone in that assessment as numerous groups issued statements Thursday lambasting Interior for adopting plans that deemphasize protection.
“The Trump plans lay out a blueprint for the destruction of those things,” Bloch said. “BLM is not shy that at every turn they made the choice to manage these lands in the worst way possible. Excluded areas [from the Staircase monument] are open to more motorized used, vegetation treatments and grazing.”
The BLM’s next step is to develop “implementation-level plans" for managing cultural and paleontological resources, recreation and motorized travel,
“Recreation is a huge,” BLM spokeswoman Kim Finch said. “The approved plans provide a framework to better manage visitation. One or our goals is to improve recreation services. That’s what we think will most benefit the public.”