Interior Department cancels proposal to sell former monument land in Utah

Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018 2:25 PM
The Upper Gulch section of the Escalante Canyons within Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument features sheer sandstone walls, broken occasionally by tributary canyons. Utah has long stood out for going far beyond other Western states in trying to get back control of its federally protected lands.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has backed away from its proposal to sell off about 1,600 acres of public land in Utah that once was part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The proposal kicked up a firestorm of protest from environmentalists.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported Friday that Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt rescinded the proposal.

It was contained in a management plan for hundreds of thousands of acres of land that President Donald Trump had ordered removed from Grand Staircase and another Utah monument, Bears Ears.

The Tribune said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had not been informed of the proposal and learned about it in the news media.

He “was not happy about it,” an Interior official told the newspaper.

As The Washington Post reported, some of the land that had been targeted for potential sale adjoins the property of Mike Noel, an avid supporter of Trump who advocated for the scaling back of Grand Staircase.

Noel’s 40-acre property sat within the original boundaries that were drawn when President Bill Clinton designated the national monument in 1996. His property was left outside Grand Staircase’s boundary when the Trump administration cut its 1.9 million acres in half.

Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities, issued this statement Friday in response to the Interior Department’s reversal: “Does Secretary Zinke have any idea what’s going on inside the Interior Department? He was caught red-handed trying to sell off our public lands to his political supporters. It’s only after two days of terrible news stories that he is now changing direction. In the end, this changes very little about the plan to open up the national monument to unfettered drilling and mining for the benefit of Zinke’s industry friends.”