Oil and Gas Development is Open on Former Grand-Staircase Escalante Lands


Kiffer Creveling

Thousands of Utahn’s protest Trump’s administration with the proposal of shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Salt Lake City, Utah on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017 | Chronicle archive.

By Miacel Spotted Elk, News Writer


Recently, the Bureau of Land Management has announced its plans for the former lands of the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. The area is open to development projects dedicated to oil, gas and mining.

The monument was designated under the Antiquities Act in 1996, a proclamation underlining lands that can be protected for its geological, archeological and cultural significance. “We found out there were over 100 different species of bees there,” said Patrick Shea, a lawyer based in Salt Lake City who also served as the BLM director during the Clinton administration. However, compared to wilderness protections, the strictest form of federal protections that many National Parks attain, visitors can use off-highway vehicles, such as ATVs, on approved areas in the land. 

Conversations groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club have been open about their disapproval regarding the news, where many who have already filed lawsuits since President Trump downsized national monuments in the state.

In December 2017,  a slew of Utah’s vocal critics against federal public lands and monument protections joined President Trump as he cut Grand-Staircase Escalante lands by 47% and Bears Ears by 85%. Public officials such as Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the San Juan County Commission Bruce Adams and Sen. Mike Lee attended the event inside the state capitol.

Much of the cultural and political intensity of Utah is shaped by debates over how public lands should be regulated.

For many residents, the matter represents the ethos of southern Utah, which frequently is embroiled in local disputes and disagreement. Some believe that selling oil and gas leases from the land not only invests in Utah’s future and stimulates the economy — it also denies federal oversight on how they should manage their own land.

Instead of viewing the public lands in the state as only relevant to the local population, Shea wants everyone to understand that residents across the country have a say in these lands, as they are funded by federal tax dollars. “We should be able to designate things, regardless of past obligations, to taxpayers in [places like] Rhode Island, Maine and California,” he said.

According to an article in the academic journal Science, removing or reducing land protections is becoming increasingly common throughout many countries. 

Looking at the total actions of downsizing or degrading protections in a long span of time, 78% of all policy decisions have only occurred since 2000.  

The land, now known as the Kanab-Escalante Planning Area, will most likely process future mining or oil applications based on “whether it is complementary, or in conflict with that land management plan,” Shea said. “Most district managers and field managers have a pretty good idea of what their inventory of public lands are, and how they’re going to be allocated between recreational, oil, gas and mining use.”

Morale at the BLM for employees who didn’t vote for Trump has been limited. “I get 2 to 3 calls per week from different people,” Shea said, mentioning they hail from places like California and Washington. “They are extremely disappointed and frustrated by the supposed administration.” Shea claimed that an inconsistent vision in plans among the administration and within the Department of Interior is a larger feature of the employee’s irritation. He mentioned that employees who are years away from retirement are just hoping for a new president in next year’s election.

The student group, Enviro Club, is dedicated to raising environmental issues on campus and promoting events that supplant it. Taylor Hastings is the president and a double-major in geographic and sustainability studies at the University of Utah. “We aim to get students from all majors involved in environmental issues that they are passionate about,” she said. The club regularly partners with other organizations — both on-campus and throughout the Wasatch Front.

“I was always instilled with the idea that public lands and spaces where we can go to play are important,” Hastings, who grew up in Idaho, said. The senior sees that the BLM plans signify an approach to a larger component of our collective existentialism shaped by climate change where a higher scale of selling oil and gas leases contribute to environmental degradation. 

“Especially in Utah, we see a lot of communities that are based around resource extraction,” she said. However, Hastings doesn’t think policymakers and citizens fighting for complete wilderness protections to avoid companies drilling and mining on public lands is realistic.  According to Hastings, it requires transition based on incremental policies that include compromise for both sides on the issue.

These plans are final and resolute by the BLM until further notice by the Trump administration. This federal decision explains to many Utah lawmakers is there is a further promising ability to craft a different tone that certifies this is our state. It is apt for a political moment in a rapidly-changing world gearing up for the 2020 election.

Why is this a big deal for students, either born here or a momentary resident who loves the outdoors? “Even if it’s not a daily part of our lives,” Hastings said.  “It has value both for us and for future generations.”

For local public officials, Shea encourages them to reframe their approach to BLM land and consider what is at stake for Utah. “Land policy is not a theological question,” he said. “It’s truly a political question for future generations.”


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An earlier version of this article misstated who joined President Trump at the state capitol. It was Bruce Adams, not Phil Lyman. We regret the error.