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Public lands protections pursued across the Southwest

A policy debate has played out repeatedly across states in the Southwest in recent years over the appropriate locations for mineral development and energy extraction. Communities, tribes and other stakeholders with strong connections to particular landscapes have launched campaigns to prevent impacts from future mineral development.

Public lands targeted for protection have included areas around the Grand Canyon, surrounding Chaco, and across verdant forests of Colorado’s Thompson Divide.

Congress and presidential administrations each have tools at their disposal to restrict areas from development. Congress can pass laws that permanently remove public lands from availability for mining and oil and gas leasing. An administration can temporarily ban development for a period of 20 years. In the highest profile instances, a president can proclaim an area as a National Monument for permanent protection under the Antiquities Act, thereby precluding future mineral development as well.

Typically, a groundswell of public support encourages a member of Congress to champion legislation that bans mining and energy development to preclude the impacts of roads, air and water pollution, and other habitat degradation. For years, legislators introduced bills to protect areas surrounding the Grand Canyon, create a 10-mile buffer around Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, and prohibit new oil and gas leasing across the Thompson Divide.

But in all cases, the bills have all languished. Some years, there is favorable support in the House of Representatives for conservation protections like these. In other years, the Senate is more favorably disposed toward conservation efforts, but the stars rarely align for simultaneous action.

Advocates have thus turned to encouraging the president’s administration to utilize its authority to prohibit mining and energy development for a temporary period of 20 years. This type of 20-year mineral withdrawal has been implemented for the region surrounding the Grand Canyon and for a 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are presently engaged in an environmental review for a similar withdrawal of the Thompson Divide.

All of these efforts respond to imminent threats of development that could degrade values and uses held dear by tribes and other stakeholders. Around the Grand Canyon, uranium exploration threatened to contaminate groundwater and springs relied upon by tribes and that support the ecology within the Grand Canyon itself. Those concerns led the Obama Administration in 2012 to implement a 20-year withdrawal from development for one million acres north and south of the Grand Canyon.

Expanding oil and gas development has crept ever closer to Chaco Canyon, degrading a landscape sacred to Puebloan tribes, and creating impacts to local communities. In response, last year the Biden Administration prohibited new oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile buffer zone across 338,000 acres.

The Thompson Divide region spans McClure Pass generally between Paonia and Redstone. Agencies are in the final stages of withdrawing 225,000 acres from new oil and gas development. The effort was spurred by a coalition led by ranchers and hunting outfitters who feared the loss of their livelihoods from the network of roads, wellpads, pipelines and associated traffic that would accompany oil and gas development.

These administrative withdrawals run for 20 years, but eventually advocates want permanent rather than temporary protections. That spurred the recent National Monument proclamation for the Grand Canyon region. The 20-year withdrawal there expires in 2032, thus using the Antiquities Act to establish the million-acre Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument ensures the groundwater, springs, and landscape is protected long term.

As Congressional gridlock prevails, it seems likely that future efforts to protect prized landscapes will focus on similar administrative actions.

Mark Pearson is executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.