Feb 6 (Reuters) - The U.S. Interior Department on Thursday finalized land use plans for two Utah national monuments that President Donald Trump shrank soon after taking office, a move environmental groups said would leave cultural sites vulnerable to destruction and boost development in pristine wilderness.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proceeded with the plans despite pending litigation challenging the 2017 proclamation by Trump that slashed the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
BLM officials told reporters in a call that the land use plans for the Grand Staircase-Esclalante monument, as well as 860,000 acres (348,030 hectares) that were excluded from the monument by Trump, were necessary because the existing plan had not been updated in 20 years and that the number of visitors to the area had exploded in that time.
“Implementing these plans means that the BLM can improve visitor services and support local businesses and permitees and help them thrive, help the economy here, all while protecting this great American landscape,” Harry Barber, manager of BLM Utah’s Paria River District, said on the call.
The plan for lands Trump excluded from the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument, dubbed the Kanab-Escalante Planning Area, opens acreage up to mineral and wind energy development and expands areas for livestock grazing.
BLM officials said the area is off-limits to oil and gas leasing due to a longstanding federal budget provision that bars funding for pre-leasing studies in monuments that existed on Jan. 20, 2001. Grand-Staircase Escalante was designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
That provision does not apply to the roughly 1.3 million acres that Trump excluded from the Bears Ears national monument. Those lands now fall under a 2008 land use plan for the area.
The area has little potential for oil and gas development and has not seen much industry interest in mineral development, officials said.
Environmentalists raised concerns with land use plans inside the newly downsized monuments that allow for some target shooting and a brush management technique known as “chaining” in which heavy chains are used to clear vegetation.
“Even the parts of the monuments that were retained by the administration are not protected under these plans,” said Phil Hanceford, conservation director with green group The Wilderness Society. The society is one of the groups suing the Trump administration over the downsizing of the Utah monuments. (Reporting by Nichola Groom; editing by Jonathan Oatis)