The push for oil and gas development on Western public lands picked up momentum Thursday despite opposition from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Colorado conservation organizations and Colorado politicians such as Gov. Jared Polis.
President Donald Trump’s administration announced final plans Thursday to allow cattle grazing, mining, oil drilling and other development across a section of southeast Utah previously protected as national monuments.
With the plans, millions of acres of land that contain cultural artifacts, rock art and fossils are at risk.
But Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said the land in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante don’t have a significant amount of oil and natural gas. In fact, the oil and gas industry has been “largely unscathed by national monument designations,” Sgamma told The Durango Herald.
The Western Energy Alliance’s only concern is that a future “keep it in the ground president” would use the Antiquities Act to protect the land, Sgamma said. The Antiquities Act classifies archaeological sites on public land as important public resources.
“It is hard to argue that a president can make national monuments with the wave of a wand” but can’t adjust the borders, Sgamma said.
Ranchers losing landFor local ranchers like James Snyder, opening up the public land for cattle grazing would keep the industry alive for new generations of ranchers. When private ground in the West is parceled into housing developments and subdivisions, the cost of grazing land increases. Some Colorado ranchers graze their cattle in neighboring Utah.
“With ranching, you can’t afford to pay that much, and BLM ground wasn’t pieced up like the rest of it,” Snyder told the Herald.
In Cortez, young farmers say there is no point in trying to raise cattle on land their family has worked for generations, Snyder said.
Older farmers can sell the land for to developers and retire comfortably.
“Lots of people want to live here, and I don’t blame them. This is some of the best places in the world to live,” Snyder said.
Voices of the tribes ignoredTrump cut the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in 2017. The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears monument was divided into two monuments, Shash Jaa and Indian Creek, totaling 201,876 acres. Grand Staircase-Escalante was reduced from 1.8 million acres to 1 million acres and broken into three areas.
Shaun Chapoose, a representative for the Ute Indian Tribe and co-chairperson for the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, said in a statement that the Trump administration is “failing in its treaty and trust responsibilities to Indian tribes” by eliminating protections for “thousands of priceless and significant cultural, natural and sacred objects.”
Sharon Buccino, senior director for lands at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it “the latest in a series of insults to these magnificent lands by the Trump administration.”
“We stand with the five tribes and the millions of Americans who vigorously oppose this degradation and giveaway of our public lands, and we will continue to challenge the unlawful dismantling of these Utah treasures in court,” Buccino said.
Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and a coalition of Native American tribes sued the Trump administration over the reductions, and the decision is pending in federal court.
Implementation unlikelyPeter Ortego, attorney for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said the Trump administration did not have the legal right to release these plans.
“I anticipate a lot of challenges,” Ortego said, since the Trump administration’s plans will have to go through various courts before they are implemented, and Ortego believes the tribes will be successful in their lawsuit to redesignate the lands as national monuments.
“The Utes have occupied that area for time eternal,” and for the Trump administration to move forward developing the land without their involvement is “an affront to human dignity, as far as I’m concerned,” Ortego told the Herald.
“When we don’t work together, it delays the resolution of issues, and no one really wins,” Ortego said.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.