Zinke Plans to Divide Monument for Industry and Local Allies

Update: Shortly after this blog was posted Friday, August 17th, the Washington Post published a new story reporting that DOI has reversed course and would not attempt to dispose of the 1,600 acres discussed below. A senior Interior Department official told the Salt Lake Tribune"[Zinke] did not see the proposal before it went out..." begging the question: why not? Secretary Zinke fancies himself the Commander of the Interior Department but appears to maintain little control over it. Nor does he take responsibility for its important work products; instead his Deputy Secretary, David Bernhardt, publicly took the fall for this especially egregious proposal. This latest episode has simply traded one set of questions about Zinke's leadership qualifications for another.

Credit: David Kingham/Flickr (CC 2.0)

Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department released documents yesterday indicating its intention to sell to private interests 1,600 acres of land previously and rightfully protected as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. 1,600 acres of invaluable land belonging to the American people.

Grand Staircase-Escalante is a geological and paleontological wonder. Designated a monument in 1996 by President Clinton, its stunning sandstone cliffs and red rock canyons cut a unique and spectacular landscape. They also have preserved such a stock of fossils that excavations there have uncovered “more information about ecosystem change at the end of the dinosaur era than any other place in the world,” according to Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. As federal land, it is natural heritage shared by all Americans. But Trump cut its protections in half by area and his Interior Department now seeks to dispose of pieces.

Last winter, however, our Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke swore such a thing would not happen. He called a prediction of land sales “nefarious, false, and a lie.” Later, he joined the press-like entertainment program Fox and Friends to pledge, “There is not one square inch that leaves [federal ownership].”

Interior’s proposal, a draft Resource Management Plan for the area previously encompassed by Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, once again makes clear the utter dearth of leadership at the Interior Department. Secretary Zinke regularly misleads the American public as he acts against our interests, ceding the health of our treasured lands to special interests.

In this case, there’s also little question that at least some of the lands on the table for disposal were identified for the benefit of a politically powerful local, a Zinke ally. As the Washington Post reported, pieces of the land to be sold are directly adjacent to the property of Utah state lawmaker Mike Noel. Noel was a key supporter of the Trump administration’s attack on our national monuments and he’s already personally benefited from the boundary changes to Grand Staircase that President Trump is fighting to implement. NRDC is fighting back in court. But this latest move appears to be cronyism, plain and simple.

This land sale is not the only horror in the draft resource management plan. It also proposes to make 700,000 formerly protected acres available for coal mining, which would ravage the landscape, ecosystems, and paleontological artifacts. The preclusion of mining to protect this land was one of President Clinton’s goals in designating the monument. The plan would also effectively reopen areas previously closed to livestock grazing, rescinding a number of safeguards to protect its sensitive canyons from uncontrolled cattle.

There is good news, however: the Resource (mis)Management Plan is not final. Its formal publication on Thursday opened a public comment period of 90 days, which ends November 14th. NRDC will communicate our opposition to this draft’s finalization, but we’ll need the help of public land supporters to get the message across. Stay tuned to our social media feeds and emails to learn how you can take action.

About the Authors

Jacob Eisenberg

Associate Advocate, Oceans and Land & Wildlife programs

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