News Roundup: Bears Ears, Boebert, and Arches
A look at some Western headlines
Editor’s Note: We had some news to catch up on, so we will return to the Energy Transition and Public Lands series on Wednesday. But first, a correction to the last dispatch: We wrote that it would take 45 million acres blanketed with solar panels to replace the generation lost when Diablo Canyon nuclear plant closes. No, no, no. That is not right. Try removing three zeros: It’s 45,000 acres or thereabouts. And thanks to our smart readers for keeping us in line.
THE NEWS: Utah’s Attorney General Sean Reyes has retained the services of a high-dollar law firm to challenge President Biden’s restoration of the original boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments, with the ultimate goal of eviscerating the Antiquities Act of 1906. The move, coming just two days after public land advocates and local and tribal leaders gathered at the state capitol to protest such legal action, was expected. Yet it was also somewhat confounding, providing yet another example of Utah’s politicians’ willingness to waste taxpayer time and money in pursuit of illusory, ideological goals that go against the best interests of the state and its citizens.
THE CONTEXT: Ever since five tribal nations proposed the designation of a Bears Ears National in 2015, Utah’s Republican state and congressional leaders have been pushing against it. And when then-President Obama established the monument five years ago, then-Sen. Orrin Hatch called it an “attack on an entire way of life.” But no one ever satisfactorily explained what that means, or how upping protections on public lands messes with anyone’s life-ways or livelihoods, or how spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money on legal fees and staff time (the Boston/Washington, D.C., law firm will charge $495 per hour, according to the Salt Lake Tribune’s Jordan Miller) to rescind those protections would somehow help preserve this so-called way of life.
I’ve written about these things before at the Land Desk, High Country News, and in Sagebrush Empire, but here’s a quick recap of some of the salient points Hatch, Sen. Mike Lee, Gov. Spencer Cox, and others might want to consider:
Grazing: If “way of life” has to do with public lands livestock grazing, then neither of the national monuments in question constitute any sort of threat, since neither designation withdrew any land from current or future grazing. The number of cows chewing cud in Grand Staircase-Escalante has remained virtually unchanged since the national monument’s 1996 establishment. One could even argue that a national monument benefits grazing by precluding future oil, gas, and coal leases and new mining claims, thereby eliminating potential conflicts between mining and ranching.
Mineral Extraction: A national monument designation withdraws the land in question from future oil and gas and coal leasing and mining claims. But the Bears Ears designation had no affect on any existing operations, and Obama purposely drew the boundaries to exclude the Daneros uranium mine, the only active mine in the region. Therefore the establishment couldn’t have affected anyone’s livelihood.
Local Support: When Biden restored the boundaries, Sen. Mitt Romney called it a “blow to our state, local, and tribal leaders.” Wrong. Since 2018, San Juan County’s board of commissioners, long the flag-bearers of “local” sentiment, have been firmly behind the restoration—and expansion—of the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. The governments of the most local folks of all, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni, and the Hopi Tribe, have been unwavering in their support of the monument since its inception.
SITLA Bounty: Tens of thousands of acres of Utah State Institutional Trust Lands, which are leased out or sold to help fund schools, are scattered within the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. The national monument proclamation opens the door to an exchange of these lands—most of which are remote and have limited access and mineral development potential—for more valuable federal lands elsewhere in the state. A similar trade after the establishment of GSENM netted SITLA an estimated $500 million. If the anti-national monument challenge is successful, it will take the exchange—and a lot of cash for Utah schools—off the table.
Antiquities Act Benefits: The Antiquities Act was used to establish what would become Zion, Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef National Parks, along with Hovenweep, Cedar Breaks, Rainbow Bridge, and Natural Bridges National Monuments. Were those designations also “attacks on an entire way of life?” And if so, are these guys suggesting we do away with those, as well, despite the significant benefits they’ve brought to the state and the nation?
So what are the Coxes, Lees, and Reyeses trying to accomplish? It’s simple: They want to “win” this particular game of what they call “political football.” It’s just too bad that they’re willing to do so much harm in the process.
Arches National Park is hoping to tackle the burgeoning crowds—and the long lines of traffic at the park’s entrance—with a timed entry system:
Starting Jan. 3, folks can log on to Recreation.gov and vie for a ticket on a particular day three months in advance. They will then have a one-hour window during which to enter the park on that day; once in the park there is no time limit.
The intent is not necessarily to reduce the number of visitors, but to spread out the crowds over the course of the day, which should eliminate the long lines of traffic that build along the highway outside the entrance gate. It should also help avoid the disappointment that comes when wannabe visitors are turned away when officials are forced to shut the park altogether due to too many people converging on the park at one time.
As of the end of October, Arches had already seen 1.65 million visitors in 2021, virtually guaranteeing that this year’s visitation numbers will smash the old record of 1.66 million set in 2018.
And then the snow came, at last. A moisture-laden storm dumped a sizable helping of the white stuff across a good swath of the West, with as much as two feet piling up in Colorado’s mountains. Denver had already set a record for the latest snowfall of the season weeks earlier, but it barely missed breaking the record for longest interval between snowfalls. By our reckoning, the stick-around snowline—or the elevation at which enough snow accumulated that it didn’t melt within hours—was about 6,000 feet in the Four Corners area and across most of Colorado.
It was enough snow to allow skiers to put their rock skis away, but not necessarily enough to make water managers breathe easily—at least not yet. While the snowfall brought snowpack levels up to around average at the Red Mountain Pass SNOTEL station, they’re still lagging at Columbus Basin, in the La Plata Mountains, and at Molas Pass. The good news is more moisture is on the way. The not-so-good news is that even as winter starts later, it also seems to be ending earlier thanks to warmer temperatures. Witness how last year’s snowpack vanished in May, far earlier than average.
We’d really like it if we never had to write about Rep. Lauren Boebert again. But she does represent our congressional district in Congress. And her antics certainly draw some attention, whether it’s the bigoted and Islamaphobic statements she made about her Democratic colleague, Rep. Ilhan Omar, or her tasteless tweet showing her and her four children wielding assault rifles in front of a Christmas tree just days after the latest school shooting. We’ll refrain from showing or linking to it here, since they are just kids being exploited by their mother in order to “own the libs.” But we will link to this one, which shows Boebert really gets the whole Christmas thing—you know, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and all of that.
But anyway, more relevant to Land Desk coverage is the way Boebert, in her own words, “blasted leftist extremists for killing the Jordan Cove Pipeline, which would have provided thousands of good-paying energy jobs, secured American energy independence, and improved the environment.”
Oh, Boebert. Really? Okay, here’s some context: The Jordan Cove Pipeline was proposed by Pembina, a Canadian energy company, to carry Rocky Mountain natural gas the Ruby Pipeline’s terminus at Malin, Oregon, to the state’s coast to feed a proposed liquefied natural gas—or LNG—export terminal. The gas then would have been supercooled to liquid so it could be tanked across the Pacific to Asian markets. Residents of nearby Coos Bay, which isn’t exactly a leftist environmentalist stronghold, were generally opposed to the project since it could affect the fishing industry, tourism, views, and LNG terminals can sometimes explode into apocalyptic fireballs.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave preliminary approval to the export terminal, but the proposal hit a major snag when Oregon regulators refused to do the same. The pipeline, of course, would be useless without the terminal. So, in December Pembina officially declared the project dead.
Had the project gone forward it would have created construction jobs to build the terminal and the pipeline. Boebert’s right about that. But even if energy independence were not a delusion (it is), exporting natural gas or oil or any other form of energy sure as heck isn’t going to bring us any closer to it. What it would do is open up new markets to American natural gas which, in turn, would cause the price of that natural gas to increase. That’s good for oil and gas companies’ bottom lines; bad for everyone who uses natural gas to cook or heat their home with or who relies on electricity generated from natural gas, which is pretty much everyone on the grid. And no, it’s not good for the environment, either.
Which brings us to a topic on a lot of folks’ minds lately: The relatively high price of gasoline. Republicans like Boebert blame it on Biden’s energy policies. This, again, is wrong. Biden has been more than generous to oil companies, stopping short of even proposing significant reforms to the oil and gas leasing program while handing out drilling permits at a pace not seen since the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney years. Oil production from the Permian Basin continues to set records monthly, despite the leasing moratorium. And both exports of petroleum products and imports of crude oil remain high.
Fact is, oil prices are based on global supply and demand. Gasoline prices are based on oil prices along with refinery capacity and other factors. Public lands policies have very little influence on these things. But one thing is clear: The biggest benefactors of high oil and gas prices are the oil and gas corporations. The more you and I pay for a gallon of gas, the bigger the profits for the corporations, their shareholders, and their executives. And guess who funds Boebert’s campaigns?
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