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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Energy Developers And Uranium Miners Eye Land Near Bears Ears National Monument

A photo of a stone tower in front of a  sunset.
Courtesy of Josh Ewing
A standing tower built by ancestral Puebloan farmers located northeast of Bluff. Over 40,000 acres of land within the original Bears Ears boundaries have been nominated for leasing this year.

Energy developers and uranium miners want to drill and mine on land that used to be part of Bears Ears National Monument, even as President Joe Biden is reviewing the monument for expansion.

Utah-based conservation groups say since January, oil and gas companies have nominated over 40,000 acres of land inside the original monument boundaries for drilling.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance analyzed publicly-available data from the Bureau of Land Management to come up with that number.

A map of nominated land.
Courtesy of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
Utah conservation groups say oil and gas companies have nominated over 40,000 acres of land inside the original monument for drilling since January.

“This is more [oil and gas nominations] than throughout the Trump years,” said Steve Bloch, an attorney with the group.

The bureau accepts nominations for parcels of land that companies want to lease. Then, it decides whether to offer the parcels for lease in quarterly auctions.

The 40,000 acres of land nominated since the beginning of the year are clustered in two areas — just east of Canyonlands National Park and north of Bluff.

“The lands north of Bluff contain hundreds or thousands of sites, including ancient roads, cliff dwellings [and] burial sites,” said Josh Ewing, director of a Bluff-based conservation group called Friends of Cedar Mesa. “There’s a great house site in some of these leases and a huge amount of petroglyphs and rock imagery sites.”

The federal government is not leasing public land for drilling right now, but if it resumes leasing later this year, the land near Bears Ears could come up for auction. That’s one reason advocates are urging Biden to enlarge the monument soon.

“We’re feeling a mounting sense of urgency, with the in-your-face incidents of vandalism and the oil and gas expressions of interest that the BLM Utah received,” said Keala Carter, an employee of the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition.

The coalition, which includes the Zuni, Hopi, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Navajo tribes, recently took out full-page advertisements in the Washington Post and Salt Lake Tribune urging Biden to expand the boundaries of the monument to cover 1.9 million acres.

In the meantime, there are many laws that protect archeological resources on public land, according to Rachel Wootton, a spokesperson for the bureau.

A map of mining claims.
Courtesy of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
There have been at least 14 mining claims staked inside the original monument boundaries since Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears in 2017.

This isn’t the first time energy developers have considered drilling inside the original monument boundaries, according to Bloch. He said there have been a number of parcels nominated within the area since Trump reduced the monument’s size in 2017. But the bureau refused to put those parcels up for auction.

That could be because leasing land within the former monument boundaries would help strengthen the plaintiff’s case in a lawsuit objecting to the monument reduction, according to Bloch, who represents SUWA in the case.

Uranium miners are also interested in developing the area Trump cut from the monument. There have been six new mining claims staked in the original Bears Ears boundaries since the beginning of March, according to the bureau.

That process is different from the oil and gas leasing one on public lands. Anyone can stake a claim on land that is available for mining by doing so at the county recorder’s office and reporting it to the local bureau office.

“Once you have a mining claim located and recorded, you have more than just an expression of interest,” Bloch said. “It’s more akin to someone who holds an oil and gas lease.”

He said one of the new claims, Easy Peasy 2, is next to an existing one that has been mined for uranium in the past.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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