Since taking office in January 2017, President Donald Trump has been selling off protected U.S. public lands at a steady clip to mining and oil companies, raising alarms among environmentalists. For the most part, no one else seems to care much.
On January 30, 2017, the newly-installed Republican government announced a reorganization of government agencies, including the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior. Two weeks after that, Trump
repealed a law that prohibited mining companies from dumping waste into rivers.
Then, after Ryan Zinke was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, deregulation accelerated. Zinke supervised the review of national monuments, streamlined oil and gas industry permits, opened Arctic waters to drilling, and
reduced the size of two monuments in Utah.
A 2019 study concluded that the Trump administration has reduced protected public lands more than any other in U.S. history. The study authors stated that the intention behind creating protected natural areas is to protect
them in the long term from destructive human activities. However, governments do not always follow these intentions and often legally remove protections and reduce the extent of protected areas.
The researchers said that protected areas are intended to safeguard biodiversity forever but evidence suggests that widespread legal changes undermine protected area durability and efficacy. These legal changes
were termed protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) events.
Between 1892 and 2017, the U.S. government enacted at least 269 PADDD events in 229 terrestrial federal protected areas (PAs), removing protections for 6,000 square miles and tempering regulations in an additional
200,000 square miles. In 2017, after 114 unsuccessful proposals over 30 years, Congress approved oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
On December 4, 2017, President Trump signed proclamations authorizing the two largest downsizes in U.S. history, reducing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments by 85% (1800 square miles) and 51%
(1,350 square miles), respectively. Both decisions are currently under litigation. With federal protections removed, more than two million acres of wild red rock canyons, favored hunting and fishing areas, and tens of thousands of Native American archaeological sites risk destruction by energy exploitation. Supporters cheered the news in the Utah Capitol and President Trump said, “With your help in treating our natural bounty with respect, gratitude, and love, we will put our nation’s treasures to great and wonderful use.”
On February 2, 2018, the lands became available for mining and drilling concerns. With no fee paid to the federal government, speculators staked their claims to mine for uranium, potash, and other minerals. The oil
and gas resources in the area were eligible for sale to energy companies through recently-established private internet auctions known to be highly susceptible to waste, fraud, and abuse. The U.S. government identified nine additional terrestrial and marine national monuments for downgrading or downsizing.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was established in 1946. Before that, the United States, having won a hard-fought victory against British rule and gained independence, began acquiring additional lands. These
lands were first used to encourage homesteading and westward migration. The General Land Office (GLO) was created in 1812 to support this national endeavor. Over time, values and attitudes toward public lands shifted and Congress merged the GLO with the U.S. Grazing Service, creating the BLM.
The BLM’s congressional mandate was to manage public lands for a variety of uses such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvesting while ensuring natural, cultural, and historic resources are
maintained for present and future use.
According to the BLM, this multiple-use approach facilitates prioritizing and advancing the President’s priorities that include energy independence, shared conservation stewardship, keeping U.S. borders safe,
reducing American joblessness, and serving the American family.
Managing public lands to maximize opportunities for commercial, recreational, and conservation activities promotes healthy and productive public lands that create jobs in local communities while supporting traditional
land uses such as responsible energy development, timber harvesting, grazing, and recreation, including hunting and fishing.
U.S. citizens own the public lands managed by the BLM. Some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes, from the Alaskan North Slope mountain range to the Florida Keys, are under BLM oversight. Americans use their public
lands – rangelands, forests, high mountains, arctic tundra, and deserts – for numerous purposes, as allowed by law.
The BLM manages one in every 10 acres of land in the United States and approximately 30 percent of the nation’s minerals. These lands and minerals are found in every state in the country.
Congress passed the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. This is still the primary statute guiding the extraction of oil and gas on public lands. Federal regulators have vied with companies that seek to cut costs by evading royalty
payments, seeking preferential treatment from regulators, and sidestepping environmental requirements.
Now, Trump is handing over U.S. public lands to energy interests. While it is true that America needs energy, the average taxpayer might well ask if giving away our protected lands to corporate profiteers is a good deal for
Us the People?