Bears Ears in the News: "There's Oil in Them Thar Hills" edition

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Normally, we bring you a variety of stories exploring different facets of the Bears Ears debate, but this week we're interrupting our regularly scheduled programming to focus on one explosive story.

The investigative piece in question: a detailed investigation by New York Times reporters Eric Lipton and Lisa Friedman, "Oil Was Central in Decision to Shrink Bears Ears National Monument, Emails Show." 

The background: Last year, the New York Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking any and all documents relating to the decision by the Trump administration to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. The Interior Department refused to comply. The Times sued and eventually prevailed.

The takeaway: The treasure trove of documents demonstrates beyond a doubt that Utah elected officials, Interior Department staff, and extractive-industry companies worked in concert to carve out huge swaths of land from the original Bears Ears and Grand Staircase that industry representatives asserted contained economically viable uranium, coal, oil and gas reserves.

NYT reporter Eric Lipton tweeted a helpful breakdown of the 200-plus pages of documents. Read more here.

The implications: While extractive-industry activity in the areas excluded from the original Bears Ears National Monument is not imminent, we now know that the threat of development driven by the Trump administration's quest for "America First" energy dominance is all too real. Given the numerous signals from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that his department is prioritizing fossil fuel development over conservation (most controversially, his move to open coastal waters to offshore drilling), companies like Colorado-based Energy Fuels Resources, which owns a uranium processing mill near Bears Ears, know they have a friend in government. 

The findings by the Times also point to something we've long known: Utah Senator Orrin Hatch played a central role in the Trump administration's decision to alter the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Hatch had been asking the President to rescind or shrink the two Utah monuments since the earliest days of Trump's presidency, and his success in convincing the president to do so will now -- for better or worse -- be part of his legacy.

Emails by Hatch's staff to Interior Department decision-makers contain clear requests to remove specific parcels of land with energy potential from Bears Ears - including one just outside the tiny hamlet of Bluff, whose pro-monument population prominently displays signs declaring their community the  "proud gateway to Bears Ears."

Josh Ewing, executive director of the Bluff-based nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa, one of numerous plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration's actions, noted that "Utah is targeting Bluff's watershed for drilling/fracking...with absolutely no consideration of our community and against our express wishes to have this cultural landscape permanently protected." 

The monument litigation may be tied up in the courts for years. In the meantime, the threats to both Bears Ears and nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante may spur new lawsuits - and strengthen the movement by conservationists, recreationists, tribes, and others to protect land that is newly vulnerable to irreparable damage by corporations seeking to extract riches from underground.