Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

The Bureau of Land Management issued new proposed management plans for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and related lands this week, despite ongoing legal challenges. [Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management]

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced the proposed plan for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah in a press release this week.

“These plans are the result of deliberate and collaborative input from cooperating agency partners, local communities, stakeholders, the Utah Resource Advisory Council, Tribes, and the American public,” Acting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Manager Harry Barber said. 

The BLM also reported receiving 120,061 comments during the official public scoping period in 2018. In a second public comment period, the BLM hosted two public meetings, which were attended by a total of 197 people.

The planning process has moved forward in spite of conflict over the monument’s boundaries, which were reduced by executive order in 2017.

The proposed plans released this week, referred to as the Resource Management Plan (RMP) and Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), were developed in cooperation with 11 state and federal agencies and two Utah counties.

The BLM formally invited seven Native American tribes to participate as cooperating agencies. Two of those tribes, the Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians and the Pueblo of San Felipe, accepted the invitation. 

According to the BLM, the Shivwits Band of the Paiute Indians and the Pueblo of San Felipe expressed interest in future consultation and meetings, and the BLM stated in the plan that it intends to continue to engage interested tribes in the planning process.

 The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has been a source of controversy since its establishment by President Bill Clinton in 1996. At that time, many local and state officials, and citizens balked  at the restrictive designation of nearly 1.9 million acres of public land. 

In 2017, the Trump administration reduced the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to just over a million acres, a move which is currently being challenged in lawsuits brought by several environmental groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).

Many of these groups feel the planning process should be suspended until the legal challenges are resolved.

“This illegal plan puts a fine point on the Trump administration’s rapacious vision for America’s public lands. This is a plan of plunder: authorizing rampant chaining of pinyon-juniper forests, unbridled energy development, and a free-for-all of off-road vehicle abuse,” said Kya Marienfeld, Wildlands Attorney for SUWA. 

The released plan includes distinct Resource Management Plans for both lands within the reduced boundaries and for the approximately 860,000 acres excluded from the monument  in 2017. That region is referred to as the Kanab-Escalante Planning Area (KEPA).

“For lands excluded from GSENM by Presidential Proclamation 9682 (i.e., KEPA lands),” the executive summary of the plan reads, the new plan will “implement the President’s vision that the lands are managed for multiple use, consistent with other applicable legal requirements.”

The published plan outlines five different alternative management approaches, ranging from plans that take no action and revert to existing management policies to alternatives that emphasize resource use. The recommended plan, referred to as Alternative E, was revised to reflect concerns expressed during the public comment period and meetings.

“Alternative E would emphasize resource use and reduce constraints while ensuring the proper care and management of monument objects,” according to the BLM’s executive summary of the plan.

Policymakers considered a broad range of concerns in creating the proposed plan. Environmental concerns were weighed alongside commercial and industrial activities, including mineral extraction, energy production, forestry, and grazing. Recreation, travel management, and the social and economic impact on the local communities were considered, as well as the cultural and scientific value of artifacts, geology, and fossils, and the management of fuels for wildfire.

Under the recommended management plan, five Special Recreation Management Areas and two Extensive Recreation Management Areas would be created. These are designated areas that the BLM manages to “provide specific recreational opportunities, such as developing trailhead areas for hikers, mountain bikers, or off-road vehicle users,” according to bureau planning definitions.

Alternative E would also include some off-road vehicle closures and allow for flexible group size limitations in certain areas.

The recommended option would not set aside lands to be maintained, protected, or preserved for their “wilderness characteristics.” The option would provide 991,874 acres available for livestock grazing, the most of any of the proposed plans.

According to BLM documents, the recommended option could also negatively impact paleontological resources due to "fewer constraints on resource uses" and allowing limited off-road vehicle use throughout the monument.

Some state and local officials have commended the planners and expressed approval of the proposal.

“These BLM plans represent a continued deference to the input and expertise of states,” said Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who is the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee. “Responsible economic activity and conservation have never been mutually exclusive goals. Westerners know this, Utah certainly knows this, and it is now even more clear that the BLM knows this.”

However, environmental groups and some local business owners expressed continued dismay over the reduction of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s boundaries and the BLM’s new management plan.

“In our restaurant, we're talking to guests every day who have traveled from far and wide to enjoy the unspoiled, protected public lands of southern Utah,” said Blake Spalding, co-owner of the well-known Hell’s Backbone Grill and Farm in Boulder, Utah.

“They desperately want these landscapes preserved, as they were intended to be when they were thoughtfully designated as protected monuments. The new management plan is a travesty that will devastate the tranquil gateway communities and businesses that were thriving before this incursion.” 

SUWA’s Marienfeld agreed.

“Grand Staircase-Escalante is one of the nation’s public land crown jewels; it is the quintessentially wild red rock landscape that people from across the country and around the world think of when they dream of visiting southern Utah. President Trump broke the law and defied Congress with his illegal order reducing the monument,” Marienfeld said.

The full plan and related documents can be found at https://go.usa.gov/xVCGJ

A 30-day public protest period on the plan is open through Sept. 23.

Comments or protests can be sent or filed electronically. Instructions for filing a protest can be found at blm.gov/filing-a-plan-protest.