Today in New West news: Bears Ears National Monument and Bonneville Salt Flats, and Wyoming public lands amendment marches toward legislature ahead of public opposition.
Last week, in the waning days of 2016, President Barack Obama approved two new national monuments: Gold Butte in Nevada (site of the 2014 Bundy standoff) and Bears Ears in southeastern Utah. We’ve been following developments around Bears Ears for a number of months, starting from when the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition directly petitioned President Obama to designate the monument.
Bears Ears National Monument, as designated by Obama, measures 1.3 million acres—down from the 1.9 million the Coalition hoped to have approved. You can see a map of the monuments various measurements (including the one proposed by U.S. Representative Rob Bishop [R-UT] in his Public Lands Initiative) courtesy of the Salt Lake Tribune.
Indeed, per the Tribune, although the monument has been designated, it’s going to be an uphill battle to keep the land’s features preserved—especially its immense archaeological holdings. Some residents are already dreading the possibility of “overexposure” to the region; Jennifer Davila, a hotel owner living in nearby Bluff, fears her town will become a “new Moab” i.e. a new playground for tourists drawn by hype, bringing with them parking lots and traffic.
Meanwhile, opponents of the designation (including Rep. Bishop) are already hoping the incoming administration will revoke the designation in both Utah and Nevada, although, as we previously noted, the Antiquities Act doesn’t expressly permit presidents to abolish previous monument proclamations. Congress could, however, according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Keeping with Utah land news, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, groups like Save the Salt and land-speed racing outfits are hoping the incoming administration will pay attention to preserving and restoring Bonneville Salt Flats:
Michael Swenson, a lobbyist hired to help push the racers’ bid to save the Salt Flats, said he has spoken with individuals on the incoming president’s transition team, and believes that a Donald Trump-led government would support the legislation.
He would not identify the individuals he said led him to believe the Trump administration “could be supportive and helpful.”
Early research from the University of Utah indicates the Bonneville Salt Flats have shrunk over the past 30 years. Scientists are researching why.
The yet-to-be-introduced bill would require the BLM to establish a management plan to restore salt conditions on the flats to their pre-1960 conditions by 2026.
The land-speed racing community believes mismanagement by the BLM has led to the flats’ decline. The BLM has agreed to review the management plan proposed by the racers, but local leaders within the agency have also said they are inclined to wait until additional scientific research reveals more about the nature and cause of the decline.
To be fair, Swenson said, there was no indication that the Obama administration would have fought the Save the Salt initiative.
“I don’t think any administration wants to be at the helm when one of the most iconic places in the world goes down in flames,” he said.
Public lands seems to be on everyone’s minds at the moment, as state legislatures come into session for the new year. Down in Wyoming, we previously reported that some Wyoming representatives had sponsored legislation to change the state’s Constitution to make it easier to transfer federal public land to state hands, a move widely opposed by Wyomingites—even Wyomingites on the committee that approved the amendment.
It seems unlikely the amendment will make it to the ballot, however, according to the Casper Star Tribune:
Before a constitutional amendment ends up on the ballot, two-thirds of the House and Senate must adopt it, noted Rep. David Miller, one of the Legislature’s biggest proponents of land transfer.
“It won’t pass the two-thirds vote required out of the House or Senate,” the Riverton Republican said. “I think everyone’s screamed loud enough.”
Wyoming’s public lands are scenic and rich with fish and wildlife, a legacy for the residents of the state and country. But below them is mineral wealth that makes the state one of the most productive oil, gas and mining regions in the country.
And that’s the rub.
State lawmakers, such as Miller, who want the federal government to transfer the land to the state eye declining revenues from the extraction industry. They blame Washington for slow permitting and believe Wyoming regulators are faster and more responsive. The state’s coffers could again be filled if the state obtained the land.
On the other side of the debate are scores of conservationists and sportsmen who point to surveys showing a majority of Wyomingites want the lands to remain under the federal government, as imperfect as it is.
Opponents, such as Sweetwater County Commission Chairman Wally Johnson, say they don’t believe the state legally or practically could handle the lands. Currently the state manages only 3.5 million acres and the transfer could add another 25 million. A large wildfire could wipe out the budget for the lands and result in the state auctioning them off to the highest bidder, forever barricading the public from Wyoming’s famed open spaces.
“I think the track record with the state handling lands goes back to the 1890s, when those sections were given to the state of Wyoming,” Johnson said. “Then you fast forward and look at the acreage — it’s roughly half of what was given to the state.”
The constitutional amendment that will be introduced to the Legislature requires the lands, if they are ever transferred to Wyoming, be managed for multiple uses, including hunting, fishing, energy development, grazing and other activities. Lands may be exchanged.