Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments are revered by archaeologists and outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world, and sacred to the Native American tribes whose ancient burial sites, cliff dwellings and petroglyphs are among the countless thousands of cultural and archaeological treasures that lie undisturbed across the windswept wilderness of southern Utah’s canyon country. When President Clinton gave Grand Staircase the status of National Monument in 1996, and Obama bestowed the same protections on Bears Ears a decade later, it was an acknowledgement that there are some places too important to be tarnished by human development.
The Trump administration has taken a different view. In December 2017, in the biggest single rollback of land protections in U.S. history, the administration reduced the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half, and Bears Ears by 85 percent, putting around 2 million acres of land up for grabs by energy companies and other commercial interests. The administration’s final plan for these lands, completed in February this year, gives the go-ahead to oil and gas drilling and coal and uranium mining, opens new routes to off-road vehicles, and greenlights the removal of ancient pinyon and juniper forests to allow for the expansion of commercial cattle grazing, all but guaranteeing the destruction of thousands of vulnerable historical artifacts and natural features.
The case of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase is one among many that show that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is failing in its obligation to properly balance the public interest against commercial interests in deciding what activities are permitted on the public lands it oversees. To date, the Trump administration has offered more than 461 million acres of public lands and waters for oil and gas leasing, and the BLM’s recent decision over the deserts of southern Utah likely augurs larger changes to come.
These changes could be devastating for some of America’s most beautiful and culturally significant landscapes, but their long-term effects will be felt on a much larger scale. A 2018 U.S. Geological Survey report estimated that almost a quarter of U.S. CO2 emissions already come from public lands. More recent projections show that the leases issued so far by the Trump administration could drastically increase that figure. The Wilderness Society’s 2020 climate report projects that the leases issued by the Trump administration up to January 2020 could result in lifecycle emissions from extraction and end-use ranging between 1 billion and 5.95 billion metric tons (MT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) – equal to more than half of the annual emissions of China – and potentially as high as 6.6 billion MT CO2e when shorter-lived emissions like methane are taken into account.
The fact that public lands represent such a big share of the U.S.’s outsized contribution to climate change is particularly galling given that these remarkable places could, and should, be part of the solution. By sucking up and storing carbon from the atmosphere, these lands also offset a substantial proportion of the country’s CO2 emissions – around 15 percent, according to the USGS report. But instead of seeking to capitalize on this extraordinary ability, current policies are working to impede it, as we see in the plans for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, which (for example) sign off on the destruction of potentially thousands of acres of pinyon, juniper and sagebrush and their replacement with non-native vegetation conducive to cattle grazing.
The seriousness of this situation is compounded by parallel changes to environmental legislation, in particular the proposed rollbacks to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which would mean that the owners of America’s public lands – the American public – won’t get to know in advance what energy projects are planned for these lands, or about the emissions that would result from them, since the proposed changes would remove the current requirements for public review and environmental impact studies assessing, among other things, how planned projects could contribute to climate change.
Public lands are supposed to be managed in the public interest. The destruction of sites of inimitable natural beauty and cultural significance in order to gain access to yet more fossil fuels we don’t need, and which will exacerbate the impacts of a rapidly warming planet, is, to put it mildly, not in the public interest. Responsible management of our public lands means protecting our cultural heritage, safeguarding vulnerable wildlife habitats, ensuring that our country’s beauty is preserved for future generations, and combating the existential threat of climate change rather than contributing to it.