SALT LAKE CITY — A New York Times story Friday details how "oil was central" in the Trump administration's decision to shrink the Bears Ears National Monument last December, but Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the paper missed the mark.
The paper sued and obtained internal Interior Department emails — 20,000 pages — that in part detail correspondence over the Bears Ears Monument designation in 2016 and a subsequent review by the Trump administration.
Those documents, about 4,500 according to the Times, underscore the consideration given to potential mineral extraction, particularly related to 109,000 acres of land owned by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration that was within the footprint of the 1.35 million-acre monument.
"While some on the left and in the media have attempted to portray supporters of this executive order as greedy energy tycoons, the real benefactors are Utah schoolchildren and the people of San Juan County," Hatch said. "The lands in question were school trust lands that fund education priorities in the state, particularly San Juan County where the monument was designated."
The reduction directed by a proclamation last December shrunk Bears Ears by 85 percent, and subsequently removed 87,000 acres of school trust lands — comprising a block of acreage on the monument's eastern boundary near Bluff.
One of the emails obtained by the paper is from a Hatch staffer to the Interior Department that says the boundary adjustment would resolve mineral conflicts for the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
The school trust lands administration, in its correspondence in May to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, emphasized that its board does not have an opinion on the appropriate size of federal designations such as wilderness or for other conservation purposes, but stressed that school trust lands administration be held "harmless."
The board noted that any trust lands within a designation should be mitigated through a timely exchange or purchase so those lands are not off the table for potential resource development.
John Andrews, associate director of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration and chief legal counsel, wrote Zinke and asked that the boundary be "slightly adjusted to avoid two state school trust parcels, particularly the large block of school trust lands north of the town of Bluff."
The letter was sent as part of the comment period accompanying Zinke's review of more than two dozen monuments directed by President Donald Trump through an executive order.
Zinke, when he visited Utah last May, said the lands inside Bears Ears National Monument have little oil and gas development potential overall, which coincides with the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management's assessment of the area.
Maps of the BLM's Resource Management Plan show much of the Bears Ears National Monument land included in the original designation was closed to leasing or open with major constraints that include no surface occupancy stipulations. The BLM concluded there would be little impact from the restrictions given that they did not overlap with areas of high mineral potential.
The western part of the monument managed by the BLM's Monticello office predominately indicates low to moderate potential for oil and gas development.
Hatch's office said the Interior Department acted correctly to remove school trust lands from the monument footprint.
"These lands were originally given to Utah from the federal government with the express purpose of funding education priorities in the state. Sen. Hatch’s conversations with SITLA throughout the process have focused on ensuring that schoolchildren, particularly those in San Juan County who rely on these lands, were not hurt in the process of protecting the antiquities in the region," the office said in a prepared statement.
"Sen. 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.”
The Times story also indicated Zinke's office probed the amount of coal contained in the Kaparowitz Plateau at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, long a lament by locals objecting to the 1996 designation. That has been removed in that monument's boundary reduction.
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