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Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante Faces an Uncertain Future as the Public Comment Period Ends

Under the Bureau of Land Management's plan, close to 700,000 acres of previously protected land would be open to drilling and mining.
Bob Morgan hangs a monument support sign at his house in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on May 11th, 2017, outside Escalante, Utah.

Many environmental groups and tribes claim the president does not have the authority to downsize national monuments.

It's been nearly a year since President Donald Trump signed an executive order reducing Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, from 1.9 million acres to just over a million acres. And since August, the Bureau of Land Management has been accepting public comments on draft plans for the management of the scaled-down monument. That public comment period ends on Friday.

Trump's executive order divided the remaining lands into three separate units, known as the Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits, and Escalante Canyons Units. The plans outline what activities—from energy development to motorized recreation—will be allowed to occur in different parts of the monument as well as in the areas now excluded from the monument boundaries. (The comment period for Bears Ears National Monument, which Trump shrunk by about 85 percent that same day, ended earlier this month.)

With the comment period for Grand Staircase set to close, here's what you need to know about the Trump administration's blueprint for the monument's future:

The BLM's 'Preferred' Plans Minimize Environmental Protections

The BLM's plans for Grand Staircase include four alternatives—but the agency highlights as its "preferred" alternative the one that includes the fewest restrictions. According to the BLM's own assessment of environmental impact, compared to the other options, its preferred option "conserves the least land area for physical, biological, and cultural resources" and "is the least restrictive to energy and mineral development."

The plans tout the potential economic benefits of these more relaxed protections, including employment opportunities and increased "industry activity."

Most of the Lands Trump Excised From the Monument Would Be Open to Energy Development

Along with its draft management plan and environmental impact statement, the BLM released a "Mineral Potential Report" on the lands now excluded from the monument. Prepared by the Utah Geological Survey, the report looks at the known resources occurring in those areas as well as oil, gas, and coal development potential. According to the assessment, "Given the extreme high exploration risk, remoteness of the region, lack of pipelines and infrastructure, depressed prices, and other factors, it is unlikely that much if any drilling activity will take place" in the excluded lands.

Coal development is more likely, particularly in a rugged expanse of badlands called the Kaiparowits Plateau, where plans were underway for a coal mine when the monument was established in 1996. (The federal government ultimately bought out the coal company's leases, though a sense of betrayal has lingered in nearby towns that had been eager for jobs and tax dollars the mine could have brought.) The report also mentions a wide range of potential mineral resources in the excluded lands, including uranium, vanadium, copper, titanium, zirconium, manganese, and gypsum.

Under the BLM's preferred plan, close to 700,000 acres that have been removed from the monument—lands on which energy development was previously prohibited—would be open to oil and gas drilling and mining for coal and other minerals.

Those Lands Include Fossil-Rich Areas

Though the areas classified as "very high" for potential fossil yield were largely left inside the new monument boundaries, excluded areas are still potentially high in fossils—including areas that overlap with mineral deposits. In fact, a lot of these areas haven't even been surveyed for fossils, though the monument overall, especially the Kaiparowits Plateau, has yielded a trove of discoveries including at least 12 new dinosaur species.

"It is not a coincidence that some of the potential energy sources overlap the paleontology," David Polly, president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, told the Salt Lake Tribune, noting that fossils are found in the same geologic layers as uranium and coal.

Many Think the Plans Are Premature

Following Trump's announcement, numerous environmental groups and tribes immediately sued his administration, alleging that the president does not have the authority to downsize national monuments. Those cases will be heard in federal court in Washington, D.C., despite efforts from the Department of Justice—which is defending Trump, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and others named in the lawsuits—to move them to Utah.

As Pacific Standard reported in August, conservation organizations, scientists, and local grassroots groups spoke out against the new plans for the Utah monuments, arguing that the current ones should remain in place until a court rules on the legality of the reductions.

There's Already Disillusionment About the Potential Impact of Public Comments

When the Department of the Interior (DOI) collected public comments on its original review of 27 national monuments, multiple analyses found that at least 99 percent of the more than one million comments submitted opposed the elimination or weakening of monument protections. But documents released under a Freedom of Information Act request, first reported by the Washington Post, suggested that DOI officials did not take those comments into account.

Nevertheless, "the public's official input is still vital to the record and future decisions affecting these places," Brian Sybert, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, said in a statement, even if the DOI "continue[s] their proven habit of ignoring comments they don't like."