Tribune editorial: Plans for former monument lands show why protection was needed

Tourists on Wednesday explore the Toadstools, formations located in an area recently removed from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The spot 45 miles east of Kanab is a popular destination for families. The Bureau of Land Management is developing plans for managing the 900,000 acres in Utah's Kane and Garfield counties that President Donald Trump stripped from the monument, as well as the 1 million acres that remain. Photo by Brian Maffly, shot March 28, 2018

Utah is a public lands state. It has some of the most pristine and beautiful landscape anywhere in the world.

It is our glory, our claim to fame, our soul.

Yet there are people here, people in high places with friends in higher places, for whom a piece of land seems to have no value unless you have dug a hole in it.

That is the sad conclusion to be drawn from the plans now drawn, and hints of more to come, as to how the federal government want to manage the lands that were once — and may still be, depending on the courts, Congress or a future administration — large parts of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments.

Presidential decrees, which may or may not stand, removed huge portions of those monuments from that level of protection and left them open to the very kinds of exploitation that previous presidents sought to protect them from.

In the case of Grand Staircase, a new “preferred option” for 700,000 thousand acres of land removed from the 22-year-old monument tilts heavy toward coal mining and oil and gas drilling.

When the current president first ordered the review of national monuments in Utah and elsewhere — a review we now know to have been basically pre-cooked with an eye toward drastically shrinking their size and promoting extractive uses — one of the arguments for taking a new approach was that monument status was bureaucratic overkill. That the land, which was owned by the federal government whether it was a monument or not, would still be protected appropriately, just with more flexibility than the monument designations allowed.

Increasingly, though, it is becoming clear that the reason to want the monument designation removed was so the boom-and-bust extractive economy would once again have a chance to sweep aside all other uses and priorities.

In the case of Grand Staircase, the plan willfully ignores the fact that, with a generation of monument protection already behind it, a new and sustainable economic ecosphere has evolved. There are locally owned family businesses devoted to attracting, guiding, feeding and housing those who come from literally all over the world to see the natural wonder of the monument. Not to see oil rigs, or breathe coal dust.

Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee belittles these enterprises as somehow unmanly. As “craft breweries and artisanal coffee shops.” And, no, they will never produce the kind of income a coal miner can make.

They also don’t destroy the land in the process.

Before the Bureau of Land Management starts to allow mining and drilling either of these monuments, it should make a finding that there is not only an market demand for coal and oil but also that there are no other viable sources for those commodities, in Utah or elsewhere, on private land or public, to justify the invasion of these unique, and commonly held, landscapes.