Five Bucks an Acre for Iconic National Monument Lands


Five Bucks an Acre for Iconic National Monument Lands

Trump removed national monument protections in Utah, and today the land is up for grabs by anyone with four stakes and no conscience.

By Heidi McIntosh | February 2, 2018

Hard-rock miners can now stake a claim in the lands President Trump carved out from Bears Ears National Monument, including Valley of the Gods, seen here.

Hard-rock miners can now stake a claim in the lands President Trump carved out from Bears Ears National Monument, including Valley of the Gods, seen here.

Bob Wick / BLM

Amid the soaring sandstone canyons of Bears Ears National Monument are 13,000-year-old cultural artifacts … and uranium. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument harbors copper, uranium, zirconium and other minerals.

Nonetheless, this time last year, over a million acres of Bears Ears were shielded under the national monument protections that Native American tribes and conservationists had worked tirelessly to secure. For 21 years, the Grand Staircase has been protected. 

A visitor looks at pictographs in Bears Ears' Grand Gulch

A visitor looks at pictographs in Bears Ears’ Grand Gulch
Steven Gabriel Gnam

That ended on December 4, 2017.  Acting on ill-informed recommendations from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and a rushed public comment period (which nonetheless resulted in near unanimous support for the monuments), President Trump revoked national monument status from 85 percent of Bears Ears and nearly 50 percent of Grand Staircase, replacing them with small, fragmented, and inadequate substitutes.  The decision to axe the monuments included a countdown clock which runs out today. Now, anybody with four wooden pickets and no conscience can stake a claim on the land, dig a hard-rock mine, pay no royalties, and walk away at will if their imagined “Gold Rush” turns out to be a pipe dream.   All at the expense of our national heritage in one of the most scenic and historic corners of the West.

The law authorizing this kind of public lands giveaway is the General Mining Act of 1872, which Congress passed to spur westward expansion across the American frontier. It awards surface as well as mineral rights to anyone who stakes a claim and finds certain “hard rock” minerals—uranium, gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc, among others—on the land (it does not cover oil and coal, which are subject to a different statutory scheme). The law cries out for reform, although powerful mining companies and their allies in Congress have blocked any meaningful changes.

So, while the administration says that Zinke “adamantly opposes the wholesale sale or transfer of public lands,” their actions prove otherwise. Revoking the monument protections and opening the land to hard-rock mining enables just that “wholesale sale” to happen—with little oversight from the Bureau of Land Management.

Starting today, if someone staking a claim on these sacred and scenic lands finds valuable mineral deposits in their claim, they can purchase the lands to the tune of $2.50 to $5.00 an acre. That’s not a typo. Five bucks an acre for some of our most iconic public lands.

In effect, it’s not really a sell-off of treasured public lands—it could be a give-away. We’ll have to wait and see if anyone takes advantage of Trump and Zinke’s invitation to pillage our public lands.

BearsEarMining 03 (PDF)

BearsEarMining 03 (Text)

We know that uranium miners covet Bears Ears. Last May, Energy Fuels Resources sent Zinke a letter warning of a “chilling effect” of the Bears Ears National Monument designation on uranium mining, and asked that that the Interior Department “reduce the size of BENM.” 

Communities in Southern Utah know what unfettered uranium mining can do. The Navajo Nation adjacent to Bears Ears has long fought the impacts of uranium development. More than 500 uranium mines have been abandoned on or near their lands; only one has been cleaned up. Most are Superfund sites awaiting the estimated $4 billion to $6 billion required to restore the landscape.

Half Life: America’s Last Uranium Mill from Grand Canyon Trust on Vimeo.

Earthjustice, representing a coalition of conservation groups, has taken the President to court to challenge his unprecedented attack on national monuments.  Much is at stake, including critically important historic, cultural and scientific riches. A coalition of five Native American tribes has filed a similar lawsuit, as have Patagonia Works and others.  We’re also fighting 3 bills moving through Congress to ratify Trump’s illegal executive order and gut the Antiquities Act, putting all national monuments at risk.

If the court upholds Trump’s actions, critically important parts of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase will be open to mining and other development that could destroy their historic, natural and scientific treasures forever.

The White Mesa uranium mill is located in Blanding, Utah

The White Mesa uranium mill is located in Blanding, Utah, just outside of Bears Ears.
Photo Courtesy of Energy Fuels, Inc.

Further, the precedent such a decision would set could threaten other national monuments, creating a quick path for vested interests to excavate our public lands for resources, yielding corporate profits at the expense of public values.

The opening of sensitive landscapes in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante to mining demonstrates just how vulnerable our heritage and the proud legacy of public lands protections in America really are.

A decision on our coalition’s lawsuits could come soon. Meanwhile, Earthjustice stands ready to continue the fight to protect our public lands.

Hikers explore Grand Gulch, Utah, on Nov. 7, 2017

Hikers explore Grand Gulch, Utah, on Nov. 7, 2017.
Steven Gabriel Gnam