The Sordid Backstory Behind the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Decisions

A lawsuit forced Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department to disclose files relating to the shrinking of national monuments. It’s easy to see why he wanted them to stay hidden.

March 09, 2018
Pumpjack in the Aneth oil field just southeast of the Bears Ears, March 2017

WildEarth Guardians

Movie villains are a garrulous lot, always announcing their short-term plans and long-term goals in clear, unambiguous language. “First I’m going to feed you to this school of hungry sharks that I’ve amassed in my private indoor shark tank, Mr. Bond. Then I’m going to train my mega-laser on Washington, D.C., and destroy the city unless the United States government agrees to hand over to me the contents of Fort Knox, in their entirety.” Despite the many risks of oversharing, they’re more than happy to spell it all out for you.

In real life, the bad guys tend to be much less forthright. They don’t brag or boast about their villainy. They mince words, spin, obfuscate. And sometimes—when they suspect that they could be punished professionally or politically for their wrongdoing—they just flat-out mislead.

That’s pretty much what Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke did last November in an editorial he penned for CNN’s website explaining his (and President Trump’s) rationale for vastly reducing the size of two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, both located in southern Utah. There were a number of reasons that the administration felt it necessary to “modify” these national monuments, Zinke wrote, most of them variations on the theme of making sure that “the forgotten men and women of this country would be forgotten no more.” Shrinking these monuments, he maintained, would significantly increase public access to hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation, as well as “timber harvesting and cattle grazing—ways of life for many American families and the lifeblood of many local economies.”

You can almost hear the patriotic music as you read: strings swelling and woodwinds rising as Zinke describes how removing these lands from federal stewardship will help the states restore the lands’ “traditional uses” and “prioritiz[e] the voice of the people over that of the special interest groups.” The words oil, gas, coal, and mineral conflicts are nowhere to be found in the editorial—just lots of references to “local voices,” “everyday Americans,” and Teddy Roosevelt.

But if you’re looking for references to oil, gas, and coal extraction in the Trump administration’s internal discussions over what to do with these lands, you’re in luck. Thanks to a federal lawsuit filed by the New York Times (with an assist from Yale Law School’s Media Freedom & Information Access Clinic), Americans are now privy to more than 25,000 pages of Interior Department emails that tell the real story of what went down when Zinke and company were deliberating whether to dramatically shrink the size of these national monuments or leave them alone.

As the Times reports it, staffers from the office of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch began importuning the administration to redraw the boundaries of Bears Ears in March of 2017, emphasizing the windfall that could accrue to the state from oil and gas leases under such a redrawing. In December of that year, President Trump announced that he would be reducing the size of the monument by a staggering 85 percent—from 1.35 million acres to just over 200,000 acres. The new map aligned almost precisely with the one suggested by Hatch’s office.

In the case of Grand Staircase-Escalante, coal seemed to be the goal. The newly uncovered documents reveal that Interior Department staffers worked diligently to calculate how much money could be made from the extraction and sale of coal in the Kaiparowits Plateau, inside the monument. The answer: a lot. A memo produced by these staffers noted that more than 11 billion tons of “potentially recoverable” coal lay beneath the surface of Grand Staircase, making it “one of the largest coal deposits in the United States.” Trump reduced the size of the monument by nearly half on the same day that he announced the shrinking of Bears Ears. A look at this map, which overlays the estimated locations of coal deposits with the redrawn boundaries, strongly suggests that increasing access to these deposits was a factor.

Last year, as the administration deliberated—or, more likely, pretended to deliberate—over these monuments’ ultimate fate, Zinke forcefully downplayed the degree to which oil, gas, and coal factored in to the discussion. The secretary seemed to go out of his way, during a May visit to Bears Ears, to minimize the issue in his public statements. “We also have a pretty good idea of, certainly, the oil and gas potential—not much!” he told reporters. “So Bears Ears isn’t really about oil and gas.”

I wasn’t in the crowd that day, and there’s no easily obtained audio or video coverage of the moment, so I have no way of knowing whether Ryan Zinke’s voice cracked ever so slightly as he uttered the words “not much!” But in my imagined version of events, it did.

Then I picture him laughing nervously before moving on, quickly, to the next question. Because that’s the way most bad actors are in real life. They don’t gloat; they don’t spill the beans. Movie villains may be fond of oversharing. But apparently the only way to get the whole story out of the Trump administration is to sue them for it.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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