A land rush started Friday in Utah. At least one Colorado senator wants to make certain it never happens in his state.
Miners are staking claims to parcels of land in large swaths of what formerly was about 2 million acres of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, near Colorado’s southwestern border.
In December, President Donald Trump removed the national monument designation for most of the land, meaning it could be opened for private development.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management began allowing anyone interested in mining the land to stake out 20 acres starting at 6 a.m. Friday, the exact time Trump’s executive order reducing the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments took effect.
Mining companies hope to extract gold, silver, copper and uranium from it.
With nearly 36 percent of Colorado’s land owned by the federal government, including eight national monuments and four national parks, Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Denver, is trying to ensure the same kind of dash to develop the former public property does not happen again.
This week, he and 17 other Democratic senators introduced legislation to enhance the legal protections for national monuments.
Bennet’s bill would remove any uncertainties from the Antiquities Act of 1906 by saying only Congress has authority to modify national monument designations. He and the co-sponsors call the bill the Antiquities Act of 2018.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president authority to declare federal lands national monuments to protect their natural, cultural or scientific features.
Bennet and other members of Congress say the president is authorized to set aside land as national monuments but the Antiquities Act of 1906 does not allow him to take away the designation. Trump disagreed.
“The president’s attempt over the past year to remove protections for Bears Ears and other national monuments is unprecedented and a shameful addition to our nation’s long and tragic history of broken promises to our tribes,” Bennet said. “With my colleagues, I will work to advance this bill to enhance protections for Bears Ears, Canyons of the Ancients and other existing national monuments, putting an end to this administration’s continuous attempts to tear down our country’s legacy of protecting wild and sacred places.”
Canyons of the Ancients is a 176,056-acre national monument near Cortez that the Bureau of Land Management recommended to Trump as a potential site for private development. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke removed it from the review list last summer.
Trump asked the agency to compile a list of public lands that could be privately developed after saying previous presidents extended federal property rights too far.
The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments also were on the list.
The 1.3-million acre Bears Ears was set aside as a national monument by President Barack Obama in 2016 for its natural beauty as well as its cultural and religious importance to local Native American tribes.
The 1.9-million acres of the Grand Staircase-Escalante were designated as a national monument by President Bill Clinton in 1996 for similar reasons.
Trump’s executive order eliminated the designation for more than 80 percent of Bears Ears and half of Grand Staircase-Escalante.
U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Windsor, said Trump acted appropriately.
“President Obama designated Bears Ears Monument without congressional approval or the support of the people of Utah,” Buck told Colorado Politics. “I support President Trump’s reversal of this decision and believe that future national monument designations should only be implemented with the support of the local communities that are impacted.”
However, outrage about Trump revoking the national monument status continued this week from environmentalists and tribes even as mineral prospectors prepared to stake their claims under authority of the General Mining Law of 1872.
The law allows them to claim mineral rights by attaching written descriptions of their claims onto stakes they place in the ground. The prospectors then have 30 days to record their claims at a local Bureau of Land Management office.
They will not own the land, merely have a right to dig for minerals.
Bennet said Trump ordered the largest rollback of federal land in American history despite overwhelming public opposition. The senator’s effort to restore protections for the national monuments won quick praise from environmental groups.
“By sponsoring this legislation that enacts safeguards to protect our national monuments from an out-of-control administration and by supporting Colorado tribes in restoration of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Sen. Bennet is standing up for Colorado values,” said Scott Braden, wilderness and public lands advocate for Conservation Colorado.
Garrett Garner-Wells, director of the Environment Colorado, added, “A recent poll from Colorado College shows 73 percent of Coloradans oppose eliminating protections for these special places.”
The senator met with small business owners in Colorado last week to discuss how he would protect public lands they depend on for the outdoor recreation industry.
He says the five Bears Ears Coalition Tribes, which includes the Hopi, Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni, support the Antiquities Act of 2018.
Some tribes joined environmental groups in suing the Trump administration for eliminating national monument designation from the Utah land on Dec. 4. This week, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., consolidated all five lawsuits into two, one for Bears Ears and the other for Grand Staircase-Escalante.