A dramatic congressional hearing today revealed proof that Donald Trump’s controversial 2017 decision to dramatically shrink two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, was a gift to the energy and mining industries.
To Trump’s critics, this seemed obvious even at the time. But now we know that the government official tasked with drawing the final map was told to exclude certain coal-rich areas from the monuments, that secret meetings were held between the Department of Interior and uranium mining interests before the sham public process even began, and that now-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler was among the lobbyists involved in the secret deals.
First, as early as March 2017, then Sen.Utah Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) had provided the Trump administration with a revised map of Bears Ears, in an email–obtained by The New York Times pursuant to a Freedom Of Information Act request–saying that it would “resolve all known mineral conflicts.”
The final map, adopted in December 2017, was almost identical to Hatch’s map.
Second, as first reported by Roll Call, on April 5, 2017, a top Interior Department official held a secret meeting with lobbyists for Energy Fuels Resources, which holds 350 uranium leases in and around Bears Ears. The lobbyists included current EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, who set up the meeting by noting his work on the Trump presidential campaign.
Those meetings took place before Trump’s April 26 announcement to review national monuments, including the Obama administration's designation of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. The public hearing process that Zinke subsequently pursued—in which he talked to various stakeholders about the designation—appears now to be a sham.
What precisely Wheeler asked of Zinke is still unknown, but lawmakers should demand to know the details. It’s not just the 3.2 million acres of the two natural areas that are at stake but also Wheeler’s reputation and, with it, his ability to have the public's trust as he spearheads the administration’s environmental policy.
Third, at the hearing—held by the House Committee on Natural Resources— Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) cited testimony provided to the Interior Department’s Inspector General by Tyler Ashcroft, the specialist actually tasked with drawing the final map. Ashcroft testified under oath that he was told to exclude certain coal leases from the monument areas, even though there were dinosaur fossils found in the same area that are found nowhere else in the world.
According to Huffman, Tyler said “we were told that they are out regardless.”
“That is fundamentally antithetical to the type of open and exhaustive process that you’ve represented,” Huffman scolded Roberson. “The value of this land isn’t some shale, which can be found anywhere in the world, it’s the fossils that are unique on the planet.”
Ashcroft’s testimony is contained in a report of the Interior Department’s Inspector General. That report, released in January 2019, cleared Zinke of manipulating the borders to benefit former congressman Mike Noel, a staunch Trump supporter who owns land within the original monument.
But contrary to media reports, it did not clear Zinke entirely. And Huffman’s citation of it suggests that there is still much the public does not know.
Finally, in December 2017, Trump announced that he was slashing the two monuments: Bears Ears by 85 percent, Grand Staircase by 47 percent.
Remarkably, it’s possible that none of this is illegal.
Under the Antiquities Act, the president has virtually unlimited discretion to designate monuments, with no formal review process required. (Whether he can un-designate them is the subject of two pending lawsuits against Trump’s action.) That has angered Republicans and Democrats alike. As Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), the ranking Republican on the committee, put it, “There are no rules. There is no process in the law.”
Rep. Bishop blamed President Obama for his alleged lack of transparency as much as the Democrats on the committee blamed President Trump.
Whether it is technically legal or not, the breadth of the deception, corruption, and misinformation described at the hearing astonished some members of the committee. “So much for draining the swamp,” said Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA).
At the hearing on Tuesday, Ed Roberson, the Utah State Director of the Bureau of Land Management, was the government’s sacrificial lamb. He duly, and apparently honestly, testified that he had no knowledge of Zinke’s back-room deals, and, on the contrary, had conducted a thorough set of meetings with stakeholders in Utah, where the monuments are located, from Native American tribes to commercial interests to local government officials.
But by the time he held those meetings, Zinke had already made his decision behind closed doors.
As to Wheeler’s involvement, there’s nothing technically illegal with a mineral lobbyist meeting with the Department of Interior, as long as those meetings are disclosed. That’s what lobbyists do.
But Wheeler met in secret, and then stood idly by as Zinke and his underlings conducted a series of sham public meetings and, when they finally announced the rollbacks in 2017, lied about the way they were decided. While Wheeler is now running the EPA, two years ago he participated in a secret deal that undermined the public trust, even if that process is not codified in law.
Indeed, the misrepresentations continued at the hearing itself. Several Republican committee members said there were no major mineral or coal deposits within the monuments’ original vicinity.
But a March 2017 Interior Department memo said that 11.36 billion tons could be recovered from one area alone. And according to Roll Call, Wheeler’s client holds over 350 separate uranium claims within the monuments’ original boundaries.
Meanwhile, representatives from three Native American tribes testified that the Interior Department ignored their repeated requests to meet. They further noted the religious significance of the area, which is a pilgrimage site and home to an ancient Hopi “kiva,” a chamber used for religious rites.
“How would you feel if someone got in an ATV and rode around in your church?” asked a visibly angry Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi tribe.
Ironically, while Republicans and Democrats exchanged barbs, they also shared a distaste for the current monument designation process. Republicans hate how President Obama designated these monuments without public input at all, and Democrats hate how President Trump un-designated them with sham public input. As Rep. Bishop put it, “What is done by the pen can be taken away by the pen.”
Yet while Democrats and Republicans might agree about the need for a better process, first there are the lawsuits to navigate. Then there are the misrepresentations by the Interior Department, Trump, and Wheeler.
And finally, there are two million acres of land that is being fought over by mining interests, fossil fuel companies, Native Americans, and Utah officials–a conflict that, as noted by one tribal leader, goes back centuries. And isn’t going away anytime soon.