Commentary: While courts deliberate the future of national monuments, development must wait

President Donald Trump is surrounded by Utah representatives at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, as he signs two presidential proclamations to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

As autumn brings relief from summer’s wildfires, the firestorm that erupted late last year over the future of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments continues to burn.

Right now, the Bureau of Land Management is accepting public comments on the management of lands currently inside each monument, as well as those recently withdrawn from Grand Staircase-Escalante. While it is important that sportsmen and other citizens submit comments soon to request the protection of all these lands, it is equally important that, as the legal contest over their future remains undecided, the BLM not commit to any actions that would undermine these monuments as they existed before President Donald Trump reduced their size.

Without question, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears provide breathtaking scenery and world-class recreational opportunities, including outstanding hunting. Despite this, in December 2017, Trump arrived in Salt Lake City to announce Presidential Proclamations 9681 and 9682, which respectively eliminated 85 percent of Bears Ears, reducing it in size from 1.3 million to 200,000 acres, and nearly half of Grand Staircase-Escalante, from 1.9 million to just over 1 million acres. While continued debate surrounds the underlying motivation, there remains little doubt that both orders were at odds with popular opinion and justified through a legitimately contestable claim of executive authority.

Of most immediate concern, however, is that the reductions to the monuments render vulnerable the lands carved out of them to future development that could forever spoil their scenic, wildlife and recreation values.

After the astounding alterations to the monuments’ boundaries, the BLM in mid-August released two land management plans for these areas. One would affect the reduced Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and nearly 900,000 acres that were formerly within the protected area and are now called the Kanab-Escalante Planning Area. Not only does the draft management plan for the withdrawn lands potentially open the door for mining and energy development, but significant coal reserves also lie under the Kaiparowits Plateau.

The plan for Bears Ears only considers the remaining 200,000 acres of the national monument, failing even to address the 1.1 million acres recently cut from the monument. Of these withdrawn lands, many are now available for development. To make matters worse, foreign interests have begun acquiring hardrock mining claims within the former boundaries of the two monuments.

As all this plays out, advocacy groups and the region’s tribal nations have filed five separate lawsuits — now consolidated into two cases, one regarding each Utah national monument — challenging Trump’s authority to redraw the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Their claims rest on the fact that the Antiquities Act of 1906, which grants the president the power to designate national monuments, does not include a provision for him or her to nullify or significantly alter an existing monument, and that the reduction of the monuments puts at risk sites with historical and spiritual significance to local indigenous communities.

To protect the integrity of these lands, it is critical that all citizens submit comments to the BLM at https://goo.gl/EHvhbc and https://goo.gl/uLrEae, by Nov. 15 and Nov. 30 respectively, and that all commitments for development within the national monuments’ former boundaries cease until the courts have decided whether the administration’s actions will stand under the rule of law. From a variety of perspectives — ecological, recreational, cultural and historical — little is required to cause irreparable damage to the landscapes of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Were these lands mined and drilled while the slow wheels of justice turned, a decision in favor of the plaintiffs and the countless Americans who celebrate our public lands system would ring hollow.

Jay Banta

Jay Banta is a lifelong sportsman and public land user who has lived in Utah for 28 years. He writes from St. George.

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