The Future of The West: Wilderness or Wasteland

July 26, 2018

With elections coming up later this year, and another major election happening in 2020, Americans have a lot on their minds. While it seems difficult to get people to agree on anything these days, residents of the American West seem to agree on one thing: the conservation of public lands for recreation.

President Trump is opening millions of acres of pristine wilderness along the Colorado River in several states to mining and oil extraction, threatening the thriving outdoor recreation industry on which the rural economies of many western states depend. Here, the Colorado River winds through Utah’s canyon country near Moab.

 

According to a recent study, 82% of people in western states say that public lands, parks, and wildlife issues are an important issue in deciding which candidate to vote for, with 38% saying they consider it very important. This could spell bad news for the current administration, with 56% of respondents disapproving of what Trump is doing on public land issues. The disapproval is likely the result of reducing two of the largest and most important national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, as well as the administration’s gung-ho attitude towards opening up untouched wilderness to oil, coal, and uranium extraction.

 

As a result of the Antiquities Act of 1906, American presidents have sweeping authority to declare federal land containing “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” to become national monuments, “the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” The “smallest area compatible” section of the law was used to justify the review of monuments over 100,000 acres that were established since 1996 in an attempt to “end another egregious use of government power”. The focal points of this “massive federal land grab,” according to Trump, were two huge swaths of land in Southern Utah: Grand Staircase Escalante, 1.9 million acres set aside as a national monument by President Clinton in 1991, and the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears, laid out by President Obama near the end of his second term.

A hiker in Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which was reduced in size by nearly 50% earlier this year.

 

However, it soon became clear that this review had different intentions rooted in special interests. In memos and emails handed over to the New York Times, Zinke clearly instructs staffers to complete thorough reviews of the “annual production of coal, oil, gas and renewables (if any) on site; [the] amount of energy transmission infrastructure on site (if any)” for all the national monuments in question. He also asked staffers to assess whether any local mines had been impacted by the creation of national monuments. These instructions were later redacted, as they could “reveal the strategy about the [national monument] review process,” according to a memo written by Bureau of Land Management official Nikki Moore.

On top of that, the Interior Department accidentally released documents revealing that they removed analysis of the benefits of national monuments like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase to the rural economies of the states in which they’re found. In the report, sections discussing the benefits of increased tourism, reduced vandalization, more frequent archeological finds, and sustainable levels of hunting and fishing were removed in order to skew the analysis towards reduction. Outdoor recreation brings $887 billion of economic activity, more than we spend on fuel and pharmaceuticals combined, to the United States every year, often to small businesses in rural areas. Additionally, 483,000 jobs rely on the hunting and fishing industry, while only 180,000 people are employed by oil and natural gas extraction.

Bears Ears National Monument was home to an estimated 100,000 archeological sites, like this 500+ year-old cliff dwelling tucked into an alcove in Combs Ridge. Following Trump’s reduction of Bears Ears National Monument by over 85%, parcels of land along Combs Ridge have already been auctioned off to oil and gas developers.

 

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch has opposed the creation of Bears Ears from the start, claiming that it essentially steals back 110,000 acres of land given to the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). The land was given to the state of Utah by the federal government to provide funding for public education. Hatch had lobbied President Obama about returning the state trust land, even though the Land Exchange Distribution Account which was created to dole out the proceeds of these state-federal land exchanges, has seen over $440 million distributed to 27 Utah counties since 1991.

 

On February 2 of this year, the Trump administration announced that, on the recommendation of Interior Secretary Zinke, the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante would be redrawn. Much to the dismay of environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts, and many Utahns, the new boundaries reduced Grand Staircase to just over half of its original size and Bears Ears was shaved down to just over 15%. The redefinition of monument boundaries now opens up huge areas of land to oil and mineral extraction, and parcels of this land are already up for auction. Of the 110,000 acres of SITLA land that Senator Hatch was so concerned about, about 20% of it still remains within the monument, but a valuable coal deposit on the Kaiparowits Plateau, one of the largest in the country, has been opened up for mining. Among voters in the West, 70% disapprove of opening public lands to national parks and monuments for oil and gas drilling, and even Republicans are split right down the middle on the issue.

Governors Arch on the Kaiparowits Plateau, formerly part of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and home to one of the country’s largest coal deposits, is no longer off-limits to mining.

 

In Colorado, the Trump administration is pushing to open 45,000 acres along the Colorado River and next to a state park for the extraction of oil shale. Colorado and Utah sit on top of the world’s largest oil reserve, even larger than those in the Middle East. The problem is, it’s all trapped in rocks called oil shale. Drilling for oil shale isn’t like drilling for conventional crude oil. Engineers have been working for decades to develop a process that removes kerogen, the fossilized organic molecules that are the precursor to petroleum, from the rocks that it’s trapped in. The best process they have at the moment requires drilling cylinders hundreds of feet into the ground and then using electricity to heat the rock to about 700ºF for 2-3 years. After a few years at these temperatures, the kerogen evolves into a form of crude oil that can seep up through cracks in the rocks. Obviously, heating huge areas of rock underground for several years uses incredible amounts of energy, and any viable oil shale operation would require the construction of the largest power plants in the West, not to mention the potential for water contamination both above and below ground. Based on the current administration’s gusto for fossil fuels, it is unlikely that these plants would use renewable sources of energy, further extrapolating the problems caused by greenhouse gases.

The Colorado River runs through the James Robb Colorado River State Park. The Trump administration has plans to auction off mineral rights to 45,000 acres adjacent to the park.

 

However, it’s not just fossil fuels that are at the center of this debate over energy or conservation. Uranium deposits are found all across the vast Colorado Plateau, which covers huge areas of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. During the Cold War, there was a “uranium rush” in the area, ushering eager miners, ignorant of the dangers of radiation exposure, into the area. This rush has left a great scar on the American Southwest, with hundreds of open uranium mines (over 500 in the Navajo Nation alone) seeping radioactive tailings via rainwater into the Colorado River. The adverse effects of radiation exposure were known to the scientists and the government at the time of this rush, but they neglected to inform miners and residents living nearby of the danger until decades later. Congress has since owned up to this egregious breach of trust and awarded $100,000 to any who worked in these mines and has been diagnosed with any of several cancers connected to the radiation.

 

Now, a new uranium operation threatens one of the most pristine and beautiful places in the world, Havasu Creek in the Grand Canyon. The mine, about 6 miles south of the rim of the canyon, sits atop a vast aquifer which provides water to a multitude of springs, including the surreal aquamarine waters of Havasu Creek which flow over some of the world’s most famous waterfalls. While the Obama Administration banned uranium mining around the Grand Canyon for 20 years, many are worried that the Trump administration will continue following suit in the reversal of Obama’s policies. The Havasupai people, who number only around 700 and live in a small village at the bottom of the canyon, rely on the creek for their drinking water, farming, and tourism, which comprises 80% of their economy. The Canadian mining company, Energy Fuels Inc, has claimed that the mine would be 99.99% safe, but since little is known about how groundwater flows, there is no way to know for sure that uranium won’t leak into the aquifer.

The electric blue waters of Havasu Creek flow over several breathtaking waterfalls on their way to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The Havasupai people rely on the tourism brought by the waterfalls to support 80% of their struggling economy.

 

At a time when coal is becoming uneconomical and 90% of Western voters across the political spectrum support increasing renewable energy resources like solar and wind power, the actions of the President in opening up public lands to new drilling and mining operations seem counterproductive to the goals of western states. We don’t choose to live in the West because of the vast quantities of mineral resources under our feet (well, maybe some do), but we live here because of the clean air, breathtaking mountains, wild rivers, and beautiful wildlife. Us Westerners love where we live, and we love welcoming others who want a little taste of our great open spaces, too.

 

When deciding who to vote for in November, take some time to consider where your legislators stand on these issues. Do they support land conservation for recreation, or would they rather see public lands opened up for energy development? Would they rather reap the benefits of an $887 billion outdoors industry, or scrape out the last remnants of fossil fuels before they go defunct?