Watchdog to investigate whether BLM broke the law by studying Grand Staircase monument’s potential for oil and gas leasing

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Sandstone walls tower over a beaver dam in Calf Creek. The area is currently part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Washington • The Government Accountability Office is investigating whether the Bureau of Land Management broke the law by identifying tracts of land for possible oil and gas drilling inside the original Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The GAO confirmed Tuesday that it has accepted a request by top Democrats in the House and Senate appropriations committees to issue a legal opinion on whether the BLM violated the law by acting contrary to Congress’ explicit direction.

“It’s too early in the process for us to have any time frames yet,” GAO spokesman Charlie Young said.

In May, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., requested the GAO investigate whether the BLM violated the law in identifying about 660,000 acres for possible mineral extraction leases within the former boundaries of the southern Utah monument.

The two Democrats say that action, contained in proposed management plans, goes against language in spending measures that barred preleasing studies in monuments as they existed on Jan. 20, 2001.

President Bill Clinton designated the Grand Staircase monument in 1996, but President Donald Trump in 2017 cut 900,000 acres from the then-1.9 million acre monument. There are now three smaller monuments in its place.

Trump’s executive order prompted immediate lawsuits that are still tangled up in the courts.

“I welcome GAO’s decision to open an investigation into these seemingly unlawful actions by the Trump Interior Department,” Udall said in a statement. “National monuments like Grand Staircase-Escalante protect some of our most spectacular wilderness areas and breathtaking lands, and it is imperative that the [Interior] Department manage them in accordance with the laws passed by Congress.”

Udall also called on the Interior Department to halt any work on proposed management plans until the GAO rules.

The GAO probe does not involve Bears Ears National Monument, which President Barack Obama created in 2016 and that Trump also shrank by executive order.

The Interior Department pushed back on the premise of the GAO probe but said it would cooperate.

“We look forward to providing factual information to GAO relative to their inquiry, and we are confident that their analysis will ultimately show we acted appropriately and within the law,” said Interior spokeswoman Molly Block.

Environmental groups cheered the GAO move as essential to keep a check on the Interior Department.

“The department’s planning efforts for Grand Staircase appear to be a clear violation of [Congress'] prohibition on spending taxpayer funds to open those lands to leasing or related activities,” said Dan Hartinger, national monuments campaign director for The Wilderness Society. “We are glad that the GAO will be investigating this issue — particularly given the department’s pattern of ignoring the law and congressional oversight. We urge the department to halt all planning and leasing efforts until the GAO has completed their investigation.”