A newly available document released by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) shows Congress affirmed that the initial boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument complied with the Antiquities Act.
The document, a land-swap agreement between the federal government and the state of Utah (PDF – 140 kb), was ratified by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1998. The agreement also stipulates that former Utah stand-land inholdings were to be managed as part of the monument.
The agreement contained no provisions that would allow the transferred inholdings to be removed from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument or managed separately. The agreement was approved in Public Law 105-335, The Utah Schools and Lands Exchange Act of 1998.
The law states that “all terms, conditions, procedures, covenants, reservations, and other provisions set forth in the [land-swap agreement] … are ratified, confirmed, and set forth the obligations and commitments of the United States, the State of Utah, and Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (herein referred to as ‘SITLA’), as a matter of Federal law.”
The bill approving the agreement is readily available online 2, and it has been cited in legal challenges to the monument reduction 3. Although its implications have been discussed in the press 4, the agreement itself has not been widely available until its recent release by the BLM in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The agreement declares at the outset that the monument was created by President Clinton “pursuant to Section 2 of the Antiquities Act 5,” which states that monuments “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
The affirmation that the monument was created pursuant to Section 2 is significant, as President Donald Trump cited an opposite conclusion as his rationale for reducing the size of the monument by 47% 6. His December 2017 proclamation to reduce the monument the was preceded by an August 2017 report from Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recommending the action 7. The report provided the same rationale as the proclamation.
Prior to the land-swap agreement, land ownership in the Grand Staircase-Escalante region was characterized by large areas of BLM-managed federal lands intermixed with a checkerboard of state-land inholdings. As part of the land-swap agreement transferring those inholdings from state to federal ownership, the agreement stipulated that “any lands or interests therein acquired by the United States within the exterior boundaries of the Monument … shall become a part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and shall be subject to all the laws and regulations applicable to the Monument.”
However, the lands declared excluded from the monument by President Trump include some of those former state-land inholdings. These excluded lands are now open to mining 8.
According to Tim Peterson, Utah Wildlands Program Director for the Grand Canyon Trust 9, “A total of eight lode claims were located by individuals from Utah in March of 2018, then acquired by Canada-based Glacier Lake Resources in June of 2018.
The claims are located at Colt Mesa in the Circle Cliffs region on lands that President Trump attempted to cut from the monument in December 2017. The parcel is one that was formerly owned by the state of Utah; ownership was transferred to the United States under the Utah Schools and Lands Exchange Act of 1998 to be protected in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument 10.”
Legal challenges to reductions of Grand Staircase-Escalante and other monuments are ongoing. Meanwhile, the BLM is proceeding with a new resource management plan for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the lands President Trump ordered to be removed from it. The BLM has estimated the cost of producing a new draft plan 11 at over $1.1 million.
“When the courts rule that President Trump’s December 2017 order slashing the monument is illegal, the new plans will be headed for the recycle bin, and the money spent on them will have been squandered,” says Peterson. “The BLM has wasted over a million dollars so far on planning for the illegally reduced Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Those funds would have been much better spent on resource protection, visitation management, science grants to study the monument’s world-class paleontology, or improving interpretation at important and sensitive cultural and paleontological sites.”
Requests for comment from the BLM were not answered. Resource management-plan scoping-phase materials 12 from the BLM indicate that the agency will not consider “general legal concerns” about the monument reduction. Interested parties can comment on the draft plan online 13.