Salt Lake City youth respond to revealed intentions behind Bears Ears and Grand Escalante Staircase shrink


By Sarah Terry

April 17, 2018

SALT LAKE CITY – A court-ordered release of emails between President Donald Trump and Senator Orrin Hatch’s offices reveal that oil and coal were behind the controversial shrinkage of two national monuments, a discouraging revelation to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante supporters.

In the New York Times’ review of all 25,000 pages of released documents, the Department of the Interior focused from the start on coal, oil, and gas resources inside both monuments. In the remote Kaiparowits Plateau, an area at the heart of the prior Grand Staircase boundary, lives a deposit that the Utah Geological Survey estimated to have more than 11 billion tons of “technologically recoverable” coal.

Released email, publicly available online

Documents also reported that the Grand Staircase monument held 550 barrels of oil in tar sand deposits, worth between $2 billion and $18.6 billion.

When national monument reductions were first announced, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke emphasized that his process was not aimed at any particular outcome, instead aiming to “right-size” the monuments’ land that he believed exceeded the scope of the Antiquities Act, the first legal protection of cultural and natural resources signed by President Roosevelt in 1906.

Zinke, as well as Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, even publicly rejected propositions that oil and gas existed within the bounds of Bears Ears. Rob Bishop currently chairs the House Natural Resource Committee.

Briton Black (left,) Brighton Resort, Sarah Terry

“It’s truly despicable, but unfortunately not surprising,” says Briton Black, a 19-year-old environmental advocate with Patagonia and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “I can’t even believe that our government can just get away with outwardly lying. What kind of standards are we holding them to?”

In an email sent March 15, 2017, from the office of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, one month prior to the Trump administration’s review of monument boundary lines, Edward Cox, Hatch’s legislative aide, provided a map of the senator’s ideal reduced monument protections.

“The new boundary depicted on the map would resolve all known mineral conflicts for SITLA (Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration) within the Bears Ears,” said the email. SITLA currently manages the 110,000 acres near the prior monument, with intentions to generate revenue from trust lands for public schools, colleges, and hospitals, steward the land, and “deposit proceeds into 12 individual permanent endowments, which are invested by…the School and Institutional Trust Funds Office.”

Trump’s new boundaries nearly parallel the map provided in Hatch’s email.

Only a sophomore in college, Black’s work with two large organizations motivates youth to have their voices heard. Black says the experiences and people she meets volunteering has given her hope for the future. “Yes, it’s annoying, it’s not ideal, but for now it’s just what we have to do. The future of Utah is in our hands, and that’s a really great thing.” Black’s concerns are shared views among many of the youth in Salt Lake City, however much of the population remains positive.

Jaya Muehlman, Argentina, Sarah Terry

“The only thing we can do right now is trying to have our voices heard,” says Jaya Muehlman, “and work hard to ensure that when our generation is in power we can do the right thing.” Muehlman is a junior in college studying biology with plans to study decline in Southern Right Whale populations after graduate school.

Orrin Hatch, Wikipedia Commons

“While some on the Left and in the media have attempted to portray supporters of this executive order as greedy energy tycoons,” wrote Hatch’s office in an official statement, “the real [beneficiaries] are Utah schoolchildren and the people of San Juan County.”

The statement continues, “Senator Hatch is grateful these emails have been released, because they make very clear that his priority in addressing the Bears Ears situation was looking out for the people of Utah, and particularly the people of San Juan County who were ignored when this monument was designated.”

Molly Davis, a 23-year-old Policy Analyst at the Libertas Institute, finds state interest in additional funds for education interesting.

Molly Davis, Utah State Capitol, Sarah Terry

“This past year was a tax surplus year,” says Davis. “It seems strange that despite having extra spending money, the state is looking for more funds in the destruction of lands that bring in millions of dollars in tourism every year.”

One positive outcome of these losses has been higher political engagement in the community, especially youth, in all kinds of different issues, not just environmental related.

Police estimated that around 8,000 people attended the recent “March for Our Lives” gun-reform protest at the Utah State Capitol, making it one of the largest rallies in Utah history. The “March Before our Lives,” a rally to support second amendment rights an hour prior to the scheduled “March for Our Lives,” drew a crowd of 1,000, the 2017 Women’s March drew approximately 6,000 participants, and an air quality march in 2014 drew a crowd of 5,000.

“The views of youth are not represented in our government, and that silencing is really bad,” says Black. “I think it’s becoming obvious that we’re not going to just sit around and wait for political figures to die off for actions to be taken.”

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