The Ground Beneath Our Feet

“Utah has become ground zero for the assault on federal public lands,” says Southern Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) Legal Director Steve Bloch. “It feels like the state is being singled out for special punishment.” Bloch’s defiant words were mildly undercut with a weary tone when we spoke, understandable as he was mired in the third week of a month-long trial while threats emerged to beloved public lands encompassing Sand Flats Recreation Area in Moab as well as Bears Ears (BENM) and Grand Staircase-Escalante (GSENM) National Monuments just days apart.

Utah Public Lands
Squaw Trail in Kanab

In a career spanning more than 20 years with SUWA, Bloch has seen a lot of threats to public land, but he views the assault on BENM and GSENM as an unprecedented attempt to roll back protections. Presidents Obama and Clinton established the BENM and GSENM with powers granted under the Antiquities Act, and in February the Trump Administration outlined final plans to reduce the monuments by 85 percent and 50 percent respectively.

The plans represent a unilateral move to circumvent conservation efforts, the legal justification for which is being challenged in federal court by SUWA and other conservation groups, with a decision anticipated by the end of 2020. Acreage formerly protected within the monument would be managed under looser regulations by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) if the lawsuit is unsuccessful.

Does the Trump Administration Have Legal Justification to Reduce the Size of National Monuments?

In an article published by the American Bar Association, University of Utah Law School Research Associate Heather Tanana and Professor John Ruple assert the Trump Administration’s Energy Dominance policy faces serious challenges, especially as the legal limbo threatens to drag beyond the 2020 election cycle. “It is also clear that the GSENM and BENM were reduced following the aggressive lobbying by energy development interests,” say Tanana and Ruple. “While a federal court will almost certainly be called upon to determine whether energy dominance can be adequately reconciled with monument protection, the Trump Administration does not appear to be setting itself up for success.”

Conservation advocates need to be vigilant. If it takes a deluge of phone calls, emails and public comments to dissuade development of an internationally famous trail. Will the public have the appetite and attention span to do the same for lands stripped of National Monument protections, even though much of the threatened land is culturally significant to native peoples and is home
to irreplaceable archeological artifacts? Time will tell, and it’s up to each person with a vested interest to do his or her part.

Debate surrounding public land management is far from new in Utah. There’s a sordid history of political wrangling, equivocating and handwringing from Utahans across the ideological spectrum, but things have escalated and accelerated in recent months. It’s reflective of the state’s particular affinity for local governance over federal oversight, with local advocates emboldened by the Trump Administration’s Energy Dominance mandate.

“There’s a pervasive attitude of ‘These were our lands, and we want to take them back.’ But what we’re talking about have never been state lands,” Bloch says. “The current administration is leaving a harmful legacy of extractive fossil fuel development over conservation. Local and state officials often acknowledge federal land protections with lip service only and are all too quick to try and monetize lands.”

The Energy Dominance policy instructs federal agencies to remove all regulatory and procedural obstacles to energy development, undermining the safeguards put in place to ensure a balance between conservation, development and resource extraction. Previously, the BLM would study the sustainability of any parcel nominated for development— through an Expression of Interest (EOI)—before a parcel would be placed up for auction. Local and state officials would weigh the merits of energy extraction against benefits of the area as a wildlife habitat, recreation area or watershed protection area to determine the area’s suitability for development. Under new guidelines, most parcels will make it through the initial process without dissent.

Such was the case in early 2020 when two parcels within the Sand Flats Recreation Area in Moab were considered for an oil and gas lease set to take place in June. Sand Flats is home to the famed Slickrock Trail, where mountain bikers, hikers and OHV drivers flock to explore the area’s unique geology. Outdoor enthusiasts were quick to come to the area’s defense even though a “No Surface Occupancy” regulation required directional drilling from adjacent parcels, which would likely have little effect on the area’s recreation opportunities. Far more concerning is the fact that the parcels are within the Moab/ Spanish Valley watershed, and sit directly above the Glen Canyon Aquifer, the “sole source aquifer” providing water to 90 percent of the Grand County population. That alone should have disqualified the parcels.

Overwhelming public pressure led the BLM to remove the two disputed parcels from the oil and gas lease sale in late February—a win for conservation groups and outdoor enthusiasts, but one that also serves as a warning. “Utah’s red rock landscapes are the best spokesman for conservation,” says Bloch. “They invoke a visceral reaction for people who want to preserve them for all Americans.”

Tony Gill
Tony Gill
Tony Gill is the outdoor and Park City editor for Salt Lake Magazine and previously toiled as editor-in-chief of Telemark Skier Magazine. Most of his time ignoring emails is spent aboard an under-geared single-speed on the trails above his home.

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