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Legal Debate Sparked Over Mining Claims On Former Grand Staircase Escalante Land

Courtesy: Colton Hoyt

A Canadian mining company’s recently filed claims to mine in what was once protected public land has triggered new legal questions this week over the Trump administration’s downsizing of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.


Environmental groups said Wednesday they might be heading to court to block plans by Vancouver-basedGlacier Lake Resources.


The company announced June 13 that it’s looking for copper and cobalt around Colt Mesa in the northeast corner of the original 1.9 million-acre national monument. That area was off limits to mining for 21 years — until last December, when President Donald Trump shrunk Grand Staircase nearly in half and lopped more than 1 million acres from the nearby Bears Ears National Monument on the same day.


Map of the Colt Mesa Mine area
Credit University of Utah
Map of the Colt Mesa Mine area from Gay Madsen Collings' thesis on the Colt Mesa Copper deposit as a University of Utah geology student in 1975. This analysis was cited by the Canadian company in its announcement about mining prospects on land that used to be the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

“To date they haven’t started mining but they have staked claims and recorded those claims,” said Nada Culver, an attorney for theWilderness Society, which has filed one of two lawsuits against the administration’s efforts to downsize the monuments, arguing that the move is illegal.


The company did not respond Wednesday to phone calls or emails seeking comment.


But the U.S Interior Department defendedTrump’s decision to shrink the monument to half its original size. Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said the land is now open to multiple use — and protected.


“The Bureau of Land Management is managing the land transparently, and in accordance with all environmental and public land laws,” she said in an email.


But critics argue the BLM and the company shouldn’t be talking about mining before a Federal District judge has ruled on whether Trump’s action was legal.


“We certainly don’t intend to allow any kind of activity to proceed without seeking immediate injunctive relief from the courts,” Steve Bloch, an attorney for theSouthern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said.


A view from the defunct Colt Mesa Mine
Credit Colton Hoyt
Conservation groups have argued the area around the old Colt Mesa Mine should not be open to new mining until the dispute over the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument boundaries is settled.

Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a monument advocacy group, is leading the second lawsuit. Like the other conservation groups, the organizationplans to keep collecting information before deciding whether to ask a judge to stop mining activity in the disputed area.


Nicole Croft, director of the monument advocacy groupGrand Staircase Escalante Partners, said her team has seen stakes and recent road improvements at the site.


“It’s a huge surprise,” she said of the new mining claim, describing the area as remote, scenic and filled with evidence of dinosaurs and ancient cultures.“For a mine to go in this particular place is — it’s wrenching.”




Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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