Thursday, August 16, 2018
BLM's Plans for Reduced Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments: More Mining, Grazing, and Off-Road Vehicle Use Ahead
BLM recently released planning documents illustrating the outline of a management strategy for the five new units of the modified Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in southern Utah. Interior released summary reports for each Monument, containing categories of public comments received during the January - August 2018 comment period, along with future plans and any management alternatives the agency is considering. As expected, the planning for the modified Bears Ears units is more crystallized than for Grand Staircase, as Bears Ears in its original form was more recently established (by President Obama, in 2016) and had yet to be governed by any Monument-level management plan before Trump's 2017 reductions. The process for the modified Grand Staircase is proceeding more slowly, given this Monument’s relative age (it was established in 1996, by President Clinton) and more lengthy and complex management history.
BLM’s scoping report for the modified Bears Ears Monument includes four alternatives: A) the no-action alternative, which would require the agency to manage monument lands consistent with terms of the pre-2016 BLM and Forest Service multiple-use plans under FLPMA and NFMA, “to the extent they are compatible with” the 2017 Trump Proclamation reducing the Monument; B) a traditional monument management plan alternative, which would prioritize protection of Monument objects and values over other resources and uses, and would identify areas for additional long-term protections of resource values within the Planning Area; C) an adaptive management alternative, which would “emphasize protection” for Monument values and use adaptive management “to protect the long-term sustainability” of those values; and D) the preferred alternative, which is a restricted multiple-use approach that “would allow for the continuation of multiple uses of public lands and would maintain similar recreation management levels while protecting Monument objects and values.”
The summary report comparing alternatives sheds some light on the details of Alternative D, the agency’s preferred alternative, which incorporates a similar level of recreational vehicle use as under the pre-Monument plans, limited restrictions on recreational activities such as camping, reduced protections for cultural resources (due to nearly unrestricted off-road vehicle use and near unlimited access for recreation). It would also authorize grazing on over 90% of Monument lands, including sensitive riparian areas, and open 130,000 acres to timber harvesting.
The agency predicts that cultural resources will be particularly affected (read: damaged or potentially destroyed) by the preferred alternative, with over 60,000 acres containing documented archaeological sites being opened to off-road vehicle use and “right of way applications” (under R.S. 2477), along with increases in activities like livestock grazing and recreation. Similarly, the preferred alternative designates zero acres for wilderness-level management, and authorizes off-road vehicle use in all but 2,457 acres of existing inventoried wilderness quality areas.
For the three units of the modified Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits, Escalante Canyons), the planning process is more detailed. The newly released documents reflect a NEPA scoping effort informed by recent public comments, and they include a proposed Resource Management Plan/draft EIS. The August 15, 2018 scoping report, which accompanies the draft EIS, notes that BLM is considering potential impacts to the reduced Grand Staircase Monument in the areas of air quality, climate, soils and water (focusing on uses such as grazing, OHV use, recreation, and mineral development as they impact soils and riparian areas in particular), special status species, forest management, wildlife and habitat, cultural resources, paleontological resources, aesthetic resources, dark sky values, soundscape values, wildfire management, wilderness quality lands, and other specific values included in the original Grand Staircase Proclamation.
In the RMP/draft EIS, BLM lists four alternatives for the three Grand Staircase units, including A) a no-action alternative, B) a conservation alternative, C) a restricted multiple-use alternative, and D) a resource use alternative. As with Bears Ears, the resource-use alternative is BLM’s preferred management strategy. It proposes to open over 600,000 acres of Monument lands to mineral development, subject to some constraints for documented cultural resources and authorizes livestock grazing on over 2.1 million acres (with only 106,927 total acres closed to grazing). It also proposes to maintain existing ORV travel management plans except in one new ORV management zone, and opening three previously closed ORV trails. BLM is open about the extractive use approach this alternative embraces, stating that “compared to other alternatives, Alternative D conserves the least land area for physical, biological, and cultural resources; designates no ACECs or SRMAs; and is the least restrictive to energy and mineral development.” BLM also recognizes that wildlife habitat will diminish based on increased ORV use and mineral development, and surface-disturbing activities, fence modification and maintenance, ORV travel, and vegetation treatment will be allowed “in big-game crucial seasonal ranges, birthing habitats, and migration corridors on a basis consistent with other resource use restrictions.” Surface-disturbing activities will be allowed in “crucial desert bighorn sheep habitat during lambing season subject to best management practices and mitigation.” Finally, this alternative includes authority to “dispos[e] of crucial wildlife habitat through Recreation and Public Purposes patents for public purposes.”
These planning documents signal a brave new world in Monument management strategy for BLM. The agency is open and transparent about its goal to manage the five new units of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments for increased mineral development, livestock grazing, and recreation (specifically, ORV use). While BLM indicates some intent to safeguard certain of the historical, archaeological, biological, and cultural resource values that Presidents Obama and Clinton included in their original proclamations establishing these monuments, others will no doubt be reduced, damaged, or possibly destroyed by the uptick in mineral leasing and other extractive uses.
- Hillary Hoffmann