Utah monument reviews fueled by access to resources, report says

Access to fossil fuels and other natural resources played an early role in a Trump administration review that resulted in size reductions at two Utah national monuments, according to internal documents released following a public records lawsuit.

Interior Department officials focused on how much oil and gas, coal, grazing lands and timber had been placed off-limits when the monuments were created, the documents show.

President Donald Trump in December ordered drastic reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments following a months-long review.

He said they were part of a “massive federal land grab” by previous administrations and that local authority needed to be restored. Those comments stand in contrast to internal administration deliberations and correspondence with Congress emphasizing the monuments’ economic potential.

The documents were released after The New York Times sued the agency with the assistance of Yale University Law School, the paper reported Friday.

One memo asked Interior staff to prepare a report on each national monument and examine “annual production of coal, oil, gas and renewables (if any) on site; amount of energy transmission infrastructure on site (if any).” It was followed by a reminder to staff to look at how the decision to create new monuments in Utah might have hurt area mines.

Other documents detailed interest among administration officials in gaining access to more than 11 billion tons of coal reserves within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Agency spokeswoman Heather Swift said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke considered the viewpoints of “members of Congress, governors, state and tribal leaders, and the public” before recommending reductions at the Utah monuments. She said he also heard from the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which is responsible for education funding that comes in part from the sale of resources from state lands.

In March 2017 — before the national monuments review had been announced — an aide to U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah sent an email to an Interior official asking that the boundaries of Bears Ears be redrawn to remove land that contained oil and natural gas reserves.

Hatch’s office said Friday that the Republican lawmaker was “grateful” for the release of the emails because they make clear that his request for changes to the monument were focused on school funding.

“The real benefactor are Utah schoolchildren,” a statement from Hatch’s office said.

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