Republican lawmakers are trying to counter accusations that the Trump administration drastically shrank the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah to benefit the uranium mining industry.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, introduced a bill last month that explicitly bars mining and drilling in the new monument area as well as in the land that was protected before President Trump altered the boundaries.
Former President Barack Obama, who created the 1.35-acre Bears Ears National Monument just before he left office, had banned mining and drilling there. Trump on Dec. 4 signed a proclamation cutting Bears Ears by more than 1.1 million acres, or 85 percent, and creating two smaller monuments instead.
“The idea of any kind of mining taking place there is remote, if not impossible, in the first place,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who co-sponsored Curtis’ bill. “It’s one of the reasons the industry is not testing us on this type of provision. There is no mining or oil there. That's part of the false narrative driven by special interest groups. That's bogus.”
Energy Fuels, a Canadian uranium producer with mining claims in the area, has endorsed Curtis’ bill. The New York Times and Washington Post have reported Energy Fuels lobbied the Trump administration for the Bears Ears rollback, saying it would give easier access to the area’s uranium deposits and help it operate a nearby processing mill.
An Energy Fuels representative told the Washington Examiner it has no plans to file mining claims in the original, or revised, Bears Ears area, and has “actually been dropping claims over the past few years.”
“We support the protection of Bears Ears,” the person said. “Energy Fuels also supports a mineral withdrawal on all of the land within the original boundaries of the monument.”
The Times recently reported more than 300 uranium mining claims were inside the original monument, citing data from Utah’s Bureau of Land Management office. One-third of the claims are linked to Energy Fuels, the Times said.
Republicans hope the mining ban can entice Democrats to endorse a bill they otherwise oppose. And they believe they have leverage: Unless Curtis’ bill becomes law, come February, when Trump’s Bears Ears’ rollback will be made final — assuming a court doesn’t block it — anyone can file a mining claim in the new monuments.
“This is a public test of how serious Democrats are of protecting the land,” Curtis told the Washington Examiner. “If they want to stick to party lines and make it difficult, I can't stop them. But anyone who is thoughtful will see this bill as an extremely good-faith effort to do what is right in that area, to preserve and protect and respect people who live there, and the land.”
But Democrats have roundly opposed Curtis’ bill, arguing the ban on mining is disingenuous. They say Trump should have explicitly banned mining and drilling in his executive order if he was serious about not wanting it there.
"If the Utah delegation wanted a mining withdrawal, they would have urged Trump to issue a withdrawal simultaneous to his executive order,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee. “They are doing this weird hostage game. Democrats still believe the entire monument should be restored. The idea we have to support the bill because it’s the only way to protect Bears Ears is a false choice.”
Though they support Curtis’ provision barring energy development, Democrats oppose the idea that they would be confirming a dramatic scale-back of Bears Ears.
“If all this bill had done was legislate a withdrawal of mining claims, it would be bipartisan,” Grijalva said. “Republicans could do that. Because they coupled that with a recognition of the new monument boundaries, the bill is a non-starter."
Multiple environmental groups and Native American tribes have sued the Trump administration over its Bears Ears move, arguing the president acted beyond his power. They note the Antiquities Act does not explicitly give authority to presidents to reduce the size of national monuments, although some have done so on a limited scale. The concept has not been tested in court.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a partnership of five Native American tribes that is challenging Trump's move, urged Obama to designate Bears Ears as a monument.
Republicans contend their legislation is the best way to protect the land, because banning mining or drilling in Bears Ears is more stable than Trump or Obama’s executive action, which are subject to the whims of successive administrations.
Curtis’ bill would permit tribes to co-manage the new Bears Ears territory and create the “first-ever protection enforcement team” for antiquities inside the newly designated monuments.
“This proclamation really needs to be an act of Congress,” Curtis said. “There is no certainty for the land without it.”
John Ruple, a law professor at the University of Utah focused on public lands, says Democrats are overstating the potential for energy development in Bears Ears.
“The areas with greatest potential for uranium are already outside of the monument,” Ruple said. “It’s not like there is this unmet demand for uranium. Certainly, Energy Fuels lobbied for the rollback to Bears Ears. It's in their best interest. They are the uranium industry. But I don't think uranium is front and center here.”
Ruple, who is aiding the tribes in their legal challenge to Trump’s Bears Ears move, says they most worry about the possibility of ceding control of the land, and departing from what he says was a carefully managed plan approved by the Obama administration that allowed the tribes to co-manage the land with the federal government.
He notes the co-management structure outlined by Utah Republicans would give representation to federal and local politicians and does not allow for full representation of all five tribes in the coalition.
“To say this is better for the tribes and gives them a voice is hard to square with the text of Trump’s proclamation or Curtis’ bill,” Ruple said.
Curtis admits his plan is “not perfect.” But he says he has made concessions in recent days to add a provision to the bill giving the inter-tribal coalition more input.
“These bills do get better,” he said.