Not only did Trump shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, but the president’s announcement came on the heels of one of the rarest finds of Triassic-period fossils, in an area which will now be excluded from protection
K. MAITLAND-CARTER: It has been revealed, fossil fuel and mineral deposits like oil and coal were central to President Trump’s decision to roll back protections for Utah-based Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, according to The New York Times, who obtained thousands of Department of Interior internal documents and emails. Emails show that Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke’s staff developed estimates of the coal available in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the areas that were subsequently excluded from protection in the Trump administration’s final plan.
Included in the cache of documents is an email from the office of Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, with a map outlining a suggested new border of the Bears Ears Monument in order to exclude locations of oil and gas sites. The Times reports the Trump administration followed these suggestions almost exactly.
DONALD TRUMP: I’m a real estate developer. When they start talking about millions of acres, I say, “Say it again?” That’s a lot.
K. MAITLAND-CARTER: In February, a paleontologist announced he and his team had discovered an extremely rare and abundant collection of prehistoric fossils within the original borders of Bears Ears National Monument, an area now stripped of federal protection status. The recently unearthed archeological treasures includes relatively complete remains of crocodile-like reptiles from the Triassic Period, dating back hundreds of millions of years. The expedition leader, paleontologist Robert Gay, says this site may be the densest area of Triassic Period fossils in the nation, maybe the world. If this site can be fully excavated, it is likely that we will find many other intact specimens and quite possibly even new vertebrate species.
Unfortunately, President Trump is more interested in fossil fuel than in preserving rare fossils. At the same time the prehistoric fossils were being carbon-tested back in December, the President, while visiting Salt Lake City, announced massive cuts to Utah’s federal lands, of Bears Ears National Monument by more than 80%, as well as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by roughly 45%. Shrinking these public land monuments threatens the more than 100,000 cultural and archeological sites, as well as rare wildlife and plant diversity that inhabits this unique historical American landscape.
Many environmentalists, conservationists, and Native American groups criticized the move by Trump, calling it legally dubious, as well as an abuse of the Antiquities Act, which was established to provide legal protection of cultural and natural resources. It was signed into law in 1906 by the then-president Republican Theodore Roosevelt.
RANDI SPIVAK: And what that means is that these places that are now protected from drilling, fracking, coal mining, that they will then be open to the highest bidders from corporate polluters.
MICHAEL BRUNE: What we’re also seeing is an expansion of fossil fuel development on our public lands all across the country, more coal, more oil, more gas, more mining, more destructive activity. They want to kick people out and allow for corporations to come in and liquidate our public lands for private gain.
K. MAITLAND-CARTER: On the morning of February 2nd, the Trump administration’s cuts to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante Monuments took effect. The day before, the Bureau of Land Management, which operates under the auspices of the Department of Interior, issued a memorandum expediting the process of leasing oil and gas drilling on public land. The memo states that it seeks to simplify and streamline the leasing process, to alleviate unnecessary impediments and burdens, and to ensure quarterly oil and gas lease sales. The new guidelines speed up the timeline for drilling, requiring all lease sales to be processed within a 60-day period, and in a big shift of decision-making power, it allows formerly mandatory public reviews of the leases to be left up to the discretion of lower-level field officials.
Alarmingly, the public response period to lease sales has been shortened to a mere 10 days, from the previous environmental review period of months. The release of the new guidelines comes before the resolution of court cases to reinstate protections for both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Lawsuits against the Trump administration have been mounted by conservation and environmental organizations, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, and a coalition of Native American tribes that call Bears Ears their ancestral lands.
CARLETON BOWEKATY: The Department of Interior, in carrying out its trust responsibilities, must have due diligence in regards to the Bears Ears National Monument. We are committed to ensuring the legacy of our ancestors preserved for my son’s generation and the generations to come.
K. MAITLAND-CARTER: The public has until March 19th to weigh in on the government opening Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante to mining and other damaging activities. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is urging a federal court to transfer both the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante lawsuits to Utah’s District Court, where it is assumed the case will be dismissed in favor of drilling and mining interests. With President Trump’s rollbacks of federal protections, there is the fear that poachers and vandals will desecrate irreplaceable Native American artifacts and sacred sites, as well as destroy remains of ancient life forms, some of which may have yet to be discovered.
This is Kathleen Maitland-Carter, reporting for The Real News.