Senate Democrats say new mining claims in Grand Staircase are ‘illegal’ while monument boundary dispute is in court

Courtesy photo by Colter Hoyt. A Canadian firm has announced plans to mine new claims filed on Colt Mesa in Utah's Circle Cliffs, public land that was the Trump administration removed from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Washington • Some Democratic senators are demanding Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke explain how a Canadian company has snatched up a dozen mining claims inside the former boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Such actions aren’t permitted, they argue, because President Donald Trump didn’t have the authority to shrink the monument in the first place — an assertion at the heart of an ongoing court battle.

“New mining within the boundaries of a national monument is illegal,” the senators, including Tom Udall and 22 fellow Democrats, wrote in a letter to Zinke this week, “and we believe these claims are as invalid as the president’s proclamation which is the subject of litigation.”

Trump carved out some 2 million acres of protected lands from the Grand Staircase and Bears Ears national monuments in December, a move that spawned instant lawsuits from environmental and wildlife groups that contend a president doesn’t have the power to reduce monuments under a 112-year-old law.

Glacier Lake Resources, based in Canada, purchased rights in June to the Colt Mesa Copper-Cobalt mine in an area that used to be protected from mining by the national monument status.

The company’s president, Saf Dhillon, said the mine includes copper, cobalt and nickel and that it would seek to extract the minerals.

“Surface exploration work will start this summer on the Colt Mesa property and drill permitting will be initiated shortly,” Dhillon said in a statement.

The Bureau of Land Management has not yet approved any new mining in the area.

Zinke, who oversaw a review of national monuments that led to Trump cutting the size of the Utah monuments, told Congress that the decision to change the boundaries had nothing to do with mining.

Interior Department documents have shown that the review focused on the benefits of logging, ranching and energy development if the monuments were changed rather than the economic boost of outdoor recreation and tourism in the surrounding areas resulting from the monument designations.

“If these claims are approved, the Bureau of Land Management would be using federal resources to facilitate legally questionable mining claims in an important, environmentally sensitive area,” the senators wrote in their letter. “As you know, ongoing litigation challenges the opening of these lands to mining and drilling and most legal experts believe that the courts will eventually find that President Trump lacked the authority to eliminate protections from Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. Proceeding with mining while the litigation is ongoing could cause irreparable harm to this area and is in violation of federal law protecting this area under the Antiquities Act.”

The Interior Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Democrats' letter comes as residents near the former Grand Staircase boundaries are concerned that the mining claims are already impacting their way of life.

Blake Spalding, owner of Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm in Boulder, which abuts the former monument boundary, wrote in an op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune last Sunday that she feared the acquisition of the mine has already led to changes to the roads in the area.

“Already the bulldozers have arrived on the Burr Trail to begin the destruction of our priceless landscapes, in order to provide access to the mine,” she wrote.

Friday, Spalding says she personally hasn’t seen any bulldozers but heard secondhand that an area of the trail that was impassible this spring is now drivable by two-wheel drive vehicles. She says it could have been Garfield County that improved the road but she chalks that up to the county seeking to help the mine start up again as soon as possible.

Garfield County wouldn't need a BLM permit to improve the dirt road.

“It’s important that people in the world understand there are things happening,” Spalding said. “It’s unclear what the motivation is here [to fix the road]. It doesn’t seem like they went and fixed that road that leads directly to the mine site.”

Ashley Korenblat, managing director of Public Lands Solutions who also owns Western Spirit Cycling in Moab, says it’s likely that improvements are happening on public roads as a way to spur development on the former monument land while awaiting BLM permits.

She says she's concerned about increased traffic in the area and why certain roads are getting maintenance now.

“Lots of counties, when they’re desperate for resource extraction to start up again, they do the one thing they can do, which is affect the transportation,” Korenblat said Friday.

Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the groups suing over Trump’s changes to the monuments, said this week that, without the monument protection, there’s a “greater chance for mischief” within the former boundaries.

Bloch said SUWA is monitoring activities in the area and will take what steps are needed to protect the landscapes in the former monument boundaries while the court battle continues.

“Those could certainly include, but are not necessarily limited to, seeking emergency injunctive relief from the court,” Bloch said.