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Plan allows drilling, grazing near national monument in Utah

By BRADY McCOMBS

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A new U.S. government management plan unveiled Friday clears the way for coal mining and oil and gas drilling on land that used to be off limits as part of a sprawling national monument in Utah before President Donald Trump downsized the protected area two years ago.

The plan released by the Bureau of Land Management would also open more lands to cattle grazing and recreation and acknowledges there could be “adverse effects” on land and resources in the monument.

But while allowing more activities, the plan would also add a few safeguards for the cliffs, canyons, waterfalls and arches still inside Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that weren’t in a proposed plan issued last year.

Among them are opening fewer acres to ATVs and cancelling a plan that would have allowed people to collect some non-dinosaur fossils in certain areas.

The BLM says no land will be sold from the 1,345 square miles that were cut from what had been the 3,000 square miles of the monument.

Harry Barber, acting manager of the national monument, told The Associated Press the plan reflects changes made after considering input from the public and considering an assessment that there are enough protections already in place.

“There are people who graze livestock, people that like to hunt, people that like to hike, people that like to trail run,” said Barber, who has worked at the monument since it was created. “We’re trying to be fair.”

The plan is expected to go into effect after a public review period.

The monument has seen a 63% increase in visitors over the past decade, hosting 1.1 million people from October 2017 through September 2018, according to U.S. government figures.

Conservation and paleontology groups have filed ongoing lawsuits to stop the downsizing.

They say the new plan lacks adequate protections for the land and reiterated their concern that the years spent creating the plan were a waste of taxpayer resources because the lawsuits remain unresolved.

Steve Bloch, legal director at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance conservation group, said it’s unforgivable to cut the monument in half and downgrade the excluded lands to what he calls “garden variety public lands.”

“Grand Staircase-Escalante is one of the nation’s public land crown jewels and from the outset the Trump administration was hell-bent on destroying this place,” Bloch said.

The allowance for coal, oil and gas extraction on the lands cut was expected as the Trump administration carried out a “reckless” plan to undo protections on pristine lands, said Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountains office.

“First, they ripped in half and now they are officially opening the door to all kinds of destructive activities,” she said. “It’s really a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry.”