(EnviroNews DC News Bureau) — Blanding, Utah — Following President Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13792, signed on April 26, 2017, which mandates the review of national monument designations dating back to 1996, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior (Interior) Ryan Zinke headed to Utah with two-day’s notice on what was dubbed a “listening tour” regarding Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The trip was announced on Friday, May 5. The first of four meetings on consecutive days began Sunday, May 7.
On Monday, Zinke flew over Bears Ears in southeastern Utah accompanied by what the Salt Lake Tribune described as “an entourage composed entirely of anti-monument politicians,” using three Army Black Hawk helicopters. Media access has been limited, reported Deseret News.
While Zinke met with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which was instrumental in supporting the enshrinement of the place as a monument, he refused a meeting with the Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB), a Navajo non-profit – and a group fighting to maintain Bears Ears’ monument status. Furthermore, when Salt Lake City resident Cassandra Begay tried to ask Zinke when he was going to meet with tribal leaders, he just wagged his finger at her and said, “Be nice.” The encounter was caught on video, and is now circulating on YouTube.
“My great, great grandmother was born up in Bears Ears,” UDB tribal leader Jonah Yellowman told KUER. “My great, great grandfather, you know, Chief Manuelito, he was born up there. So that’s my aboriginal land, our aboriginal land.”
Bears Ears has been the target of Utah Republican politicians dating back to the Obama Administration. Using his authority under the Antiquities Act, Obama issued the national monument designation on December 28, 2016. Grand Staircase-Escalante has earned the ire of some of these same lawmakers ever since it was established back on September 18, 1996, by President Bill Clinton.
“This is a clear attack on public lands, aimed squarely at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments,” Legislative Director Jen Ujifusa of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) told EnviroNews. “We are absolutely going to defend them with everything we’ve got.”
So, why the attack on these two particular national monuments, preserved 20 years apart? The answer may be found in what lies beneath them. Both are rich in mineral deposits as well as oil and gas reserves, according to an analysis conducted at the Center for American Progress. Large coal beds are also found near the boundary of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
When Trump ceremoniously signed Executive Order 13792, he handed the pen to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). The 83-year-old senator, who had helped secure the nomination for America’s billionaire president, was called to the Oval Office just five days after the inauguration. There, according to a Deseret News story, he lobbied Trump regarding his grievances over the designation of Bears Ears. The conservative Mormon-owned news organization reported, “Hatch left the meeting with a pledge from the President that he would return the land to state control if possible.”
Big out-of-state money helped reelect Hatch in 2016, along with fellow Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Rob Bishop — all anti-parks members of Congress. OpenSecrets.org reported that out-of-state contributions accounted for 89.4 percent of Hatch’s campaign contributions, 88.1 percent for Lee and 92.6 percent for Bishop.
In a 2013 report, ThinkProgress traced the money behind the anti-federal lands movement in the West to the conservative groups American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity. In 2014, Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva pressed the acting inspector general of the Interior to investigate ALEC for its “aggressive effort to change state laws in ways that undermine decades of precedent on the use and management of public lands without scrutiny or serious federal oversight.”
According to the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), nearly 98 percent of ALEC’s funding comes from corporations including ExxonMobil and from foundations related to Charles and David Koch – a.k.a., the “Koch brothers.” Koch Industries, through its employees, political action committees (PACs), subsidiaries and affiliates contributed $9.3 million to the 2016 election cycle. Of the $3.3 million that went to individual candidates and their parties, 99.8 percent went to Republicans. Many Utahans are likely unaware of the out-of-state money setting the agenda for their state.
The Interior Department listed 27 sites for review under Trump’s executive order; Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument is one of them. It holds uranium, and the Koch brothers funneled $1.5 million to Prosper, Inc. and a sister organization in 2013-2014 in a failed attempt to prevent federal protection of this land. A 2015 report co-authored by the Prosper Foundation and the Arizona Chamber Foundation laid out arguments in favor of mining and called the proposed designation a “monumental mistake.”
The Interior is also reviewing five Marine National Monuments, encompassing 760 million acres of ocean. In announcing the list of monuments under review, the Interior Department cited Section 4 of Executive Order 13795 titled, “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.” Section 4 orders a review of National Marine Monuments since 1996 with respect to “potential energy and mineral exploration and production from the Outer Continental Shelf.”
While big money will have its say in whether these lands stay protected, the Administration’s rush to judgment could hamper input from citizens. The Interior will allow just a 15-day comment period for Bears Ears, beginning May 12. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which has responsibility for 15 of the 27 sites under review, has instructed its 30 Resource Advisory Councils to postpone all scheduled meetings through September. These citizen-based panels are described by the BLM as “sounding boards for BLM initiatives, regulatory proposals and policy changes.” The BLM order ensures they will go dark throughout the 120-day review period set forth in Trump’s Executive Order 13792.
“We are reaching out and encouraging our members to reach out,” said Glen Brand, Sierra Club Chapter Director for the state of Maine, where the newly designated Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is also at risk. Whether the Sierra Club, SUWA or Native Americans groups will have their say remains to be seen.