Oil and gas resources played a bigger role in the controversial boundary changes ordered by President Donald Trump that removed 2 million acres from southern Utah’s two large national monuments than previously disclosed, according to Interior Department communications obtained by The New York Times.
After taking Interior to court, The Times acquired 25,000 documents related to the creation and review of Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante and other national monuments. The newspaper’s goal was to shed light on the opaque process Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke used to determine what to cut out of the Utah monuments.
Working under orders from Trump, Zinke launched a review last April of 26 large national monuments designated since 1996. The list was bookended by Utah’s 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante, designated by Bill Clinton, and the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears, designated by Barack Obama at the request of five American Indian tribes with ancestral and cultural ties to southeastern Utah.
The Toadstools, east of Kanab, is a popular hiking destination recently stripped from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Photo by Brian Maffly
Released to the Times were 45,000 pages of documents, 90 percent of which related to the Obama administration’s Bears Ears deliberations. About 4,500 pages concern Zinke’s multimonument review.
According to the Times’ documents review, Interior focused from the beginning on coal, oil and gas resources inside the two monuments. The Kaiparowits Plateau, a remote region within the heart of the former Grand Straircase boundaries, holds one of the largest coal deposits, which the Utah Geological Survey estimates contains more than 11 billion tons that are “technologically recoverable,” according to an internal memo.
It also said the monument has some coal-bed methane and 550 barrels of oil held in tar sands deposits, all worth between $2 billion and $18.6 billion. Trump contracted the boundaries to exclude most of the coal reserves and retired oil and gas leases.
The monument review also examined timber and forage made harder to access by the designations, but there was not much to see there. Both monuments remained covered with grazing allotments.
The Grand Staircase memo concluded that the monument contained little harvestable timber and “no reductions in permitted livestock grazing use have been made as a result of the Monument designation.”
Among the emails and memos that The Times acquired was a March 15, 2017, email Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s office sent to Interior, more than one month before Trump initiated the monuments review at Hatch’s request.
Hatch legislative aide Edward Cox provided Interior a map showing the senior Utah senator’s proposed boundary change on the southeast side, moving the Bears Ears boundary to the eastern side of Comb Ridge, the distinctive north-south sandstone fin just west of Bluff. —Brian Maffly, The Salt Lake Tribune