Leases to Destroy

Resource extraction companies are moving on public lands like never before.

By Katherine Logan

Formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, the valley’s Cedar Mesa Sandstone monoliths date back 250 million years. The Navajo, to whom the valley is sacred, interpret them as ancient warriors frozen in time. Photo by Drew Rush.

Since the creation of the Antiquities Act in 1906, American presidents have had the authority, the honor, and the privilege of designating as national monuments the country’s most culturally and scientifically significant public lands—including, by corollary, some of the most spectacular, biodiverse, heritage-rich, and downright magnificent landscapes in America.

It’s doubtful whether presidents also have the inverse authority—to deconsecrate a national monument once protected—but doubtful is good enough for the current incumbent. In December of 2017, the Trump administration announced the reduction of two national monuments in southern Utah, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears, to shards of their former expanses, exposing culturally and ecologically important places to oil and mineral development.

The deconsecration of Grand Staircase and Bears Ears exemplifies a larger trend in this administration’s management of public lands. Since 2017, federally owned lands and waters totaling more than four times the area of California have been put up for lease to the energy sector. Utah, with its oil, gas, and mineral resources underlying the vistas of the Colorado Plateau, is on the front line. About 65 percent of the state is federally owned, and the U.S. Department of the Interior has received some 230 lease nominations covering more than 150,000 acres. Development of these leases threatens iconic Red Rock Canyon lands, forested plateaus, indigenous cultural sites, archaeological troves, and geological marvels. Some of the leases would allow drilling within half a mile of renowned protected sites, such as Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, and within 10 miles of Bears Ears’s radically shrunken limits.

The move to develop these lands, which the government holds in trust for the American people, has evoked vigorous opposition: more than a million public comments submitted, several legal challenges now progressing through the courts, and expert recommendations for systemic change to better align the management of public lands with public interest.

In the meantime, the fate of public lands in Utah epitomizes the “energy dominance” policy now bearing down on federally owned lands across the West. Here’s a glimpse of what’s at stake.

The cycling near Moab draws adventurers from far and wide. Photo by James Roh.

Slickrock Trail

Utah’s Slickrock Trail, in and around the Sand Flats Recreation Area, is one of the world’s best-known bike rides. It’s a 12-mile series of seemingly impossible climbs and descents that the grippy red sandstone makes possible, punctuated by sweeping views from ridgetops and cliff edges. It draws close to 200,000 visitors a year, and puts $700,000 in the local county’s coffers annually.

A proposal to lease parcels covering two-thirds of the trail raised the threat of pumpjacks, truck traffic, and energy industry infrastructure marring the landscape—as well as the risk of contaminating the deepwater aquifer that provides the region with its only source of drinking water. In February of this year, a united front of tourism and recreation companies, conservationists, county and municipal officials, and the state’s Republican governor got the proposal kiboshed.

Ride on.

A view looking east from Cedar Mesa. Ute Mountain in Colorado is in the distance. Photo by James Roh.

Bears Ears National Monument

A rugged expanse of sandstone canyons, cliffs and rock forms, meadows and mesas, Bears Ears National Monument constitutes one of the most pristine areas in the contiguous United States. Its originally protected 1.3 million acres, comprising the ancestral homelands of several Native American tribes, encompassed more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites—including cliff dwellings, kivas, granaries, and rare rock art—on land that holds continuing cultural and religious significance for these tribes today.

The land also contains extensive uranium deposits and high to moderate development potential for oil and gas.

In stripping protection from 85 percent of Bears Ears, and leaving the remains in two noncontiguous “units,” the president and his supporters cast the reversal as a return of the land from an overreaching government to “local people” for “protection” and “traditional uses,” such as cattle grazing. The region’s five Native American tribes promptly filed suit, with environmentalists and conservationists close behind.

Once home to more than 2,500 people, Hovenweep includes the remains of six villages built by ancestral Puebloans. Photo courtesy

Hovenweep National Monument

As growing numbers of people—estimated now at 80 percent worldwide—live without a natural night, dark sky regions constitute an increasingly precious resource. It’s not only astronomers and stargazers who delight in dark-sky parks such as Hovenweep National Monument. Natural nights are essential to the myriad plants and animals whose life-sustaining behaviors depend on Earth’s daily rhythm of light and dark.

With more internationally recognized dark-sky parks than any other state, Utah is renowned for its spectacular night skies. Yet 24–7 gas flares and brightly lit drilling facilities could light up dark sky areas like a stadium. The Bureau of Land Management’s planning documents require companies to protect the environmental and cultural landscape near leased lands, including limiting the use of artificial light at drilling sites. But for dark-sky aficionados and the communities whose economies depend on them, the cumulative effects of increased leasing near sensitive sites remain a concern.

A mule deer buck stands on a ridge in Fremont County in Wyoming. Photo by Noppadol Paothong.

Wildlife Corridors

By itself, a single plot of public land may not seem like significant wilderness, but as a stretch of a continuous habitat corridor over a patchwork of public and private lands, it may be essential. Migration enables pronghorn, mule deer, and other creatures to find food and water in the times and places these resources are abundant, and to escape hard times, like drought and snow, before they come.

An energy development across the path forces migrating animals to speed up or to find a way around. It impairs their access to food, and makes an already demanding journey more difficult. With increasing interruptions, routes that have been traveled generation after generation for millennia may become less viable, or even lost.

Scientists have just begun to understand the wildlife corridors that sustain species along the length of their seasonal journeys. As the climate crisis deepens, they say an infrastructure of corridors across changing ecosystems may offer threatened species their main chance to survive.

Katharine Logan is an award-winning writer on design, sustainability, and well-being in the built environment.

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