President Trump has directed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review recent land withdrawals under the 1906 Antiquities Act, to determine whether some should be reversed or reduced in size.
The review is long overdue. The act was intended to protect areas of historic, prehistoric or scientific value, with areas designated as monuments to be the smallest size compatible with the proper care and management of objects or sites to be protected. The first designation, the 1,347-acre Devils Tower National Monument (NM) respected that intent, as have most designations since then.
However, some were enormous withdrawals; several were made with poor public outreach or inadequate consultation with people who would be most directly and severely affected; 26 of the 27 monuments to be reviewed are over 100,000 acres in size; and the final one involves deficient consultation.
Arguably the two greatest Antiquities Act abuses affected Utah. The 1,880,461-acre Grand Staircase Escalante NM was designated by President Clinton in large part to make billion-dollar coal deposits off limits. Even Utah Governor Michael Levitt did not learn of it until it was a done deal (Chapter Twelve). President Obama designated the 1,351,849-acre Bear Ears monument three weeks before leaving office, many Utahans say to make still more energy resources off limits to exploration and development.
Grand Staircase alone is equal to Delaware and Rhode Island combined. It and Great Bears together are larger than Connecticut. They are far larger than any of the national parks in Utah. And they are in addition to Utah’s five other national monuments, five national parks, four national recreation and conservation areas, thousands of miles of national trails, six national forests, 31 national wilderness areas, and millions of acres in other restrictive land use categories.
Some of these areas truly are unique, beautiful, and spectacular. I’ve visited and hiked in many of them in Utah, other western states, and Alaska. Our national parks in particular should be protected. But we have gone overboard, and far too many areas have been put in lockdown specifically to block energy and mineral development. Forest Service officials and Sierra Club officers have said so right to my face.
Eastern and Midwestern residents cannot imagine the extent or impact of Federal Government ownership, management and control of lands in the eleven westernmost states and Alaska. While federal agencies own just 0.3% of Connecticut and Iowa, and 0.6% of New York, they own, manage and control 63% of all land in Utah; 61% in Alaska and Idaho; 80% in Nevada; and 29% to 53% in the other western states.
That means virtually every revenue-producing, recreational and other activity is regulated, restricted, prohibited or under attack in courts and other venues. No timber cutting in national forests, fostering massive wildfires. No vehicles, wheelchairs, energy or mineral exploration in wilderness and many other areas. Even grazing and watershed management are under assault throughout the West.
All of these restrictive designations should be reviewed by Congress and Executive Branch agencies.
As of 1994, when consulting geologist Courtland Lee and I prepared a detailed analysis, over 410 million acres were effectively off limits to mineral exploration and development. That’s 66% of the nation’s public lands – an area equal to Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming combined. The situation is far worse today – posing a critical public policy problem.
Because of processes unleashed by plate tectonics and other geologic forces, these mountain, desert and other lands contain some of the most highly mineralized rock formations in North America. They almost certainly contain numerous world-class deposits of oil, gas, gold, silver, platinum, molybdenum and rare-earth metals – essential for modern civilization. They wait for us to find them, using modern prospecting technologies that can be carried in airplanes and backpacks, leaving barely a trace – but letting us know what is there, so that we can make informed land management decisions.
Environmentalists claim that even a single mine or oil well in these areas would destroy their wilderness character and ecological value. That is absurd, considering that many of these areas are the size of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont or even West Virginia. Moreover, unlike wind turbine and solar panel installations across thousands or tens of thousands of acres in perpetuity, modern mines and drill pads are comparatively small – and are restored back to natural conditions when the operations have concluded.
Equally important, wind and solar generate minuscule amounts of electricity, unreliably, at unpredictable times – and require far more land and workers per unit of output – than coal or natural gas. In fact, Coal generated an incredible 7,745 megawatt-hours of electricity per worker; natural gas 3,812 MWH per worker; wind a measly 836 MWH for every employee; and solar an abysmal 98 MWH per worker. That’s part of the reason why oil, gas and coal still provide 80% of America and the world’s energy.
America’s national security situation was affected when we depended on often unfriendly foreign sources for oil – before hydraulic fracturing unleashed record production from state and private lands.
Now we are dependent on different, still often unfriendly foreign suppliers for rare earth metals and other raw materials that are essential for smart phones and smart bombs, stealth fighters, digital cameras, computer hard drives, wind turbine magnets, photovoltaic solar panels, hybrid and electric car batteries, compact fluorescent light bulbs, catalytic converters, and countless other modern and future technologies.
China produces 97% of the world’s rare-earth oxides, largely controls world markets, and increasingly uses rare earths in-house, to manufacture products for sale overseas. That means most jobs stay in China, even though the rare earths are mined, processed and turned into finished products under environmental and worker health and safety standards that would get operations shut down instantly in the USA.
However, China’s estimated reserves are only one-third of known global reserves, and much less than that of potential economically producible rare earth resources – many of which could be in the United States. In fact, one of the largest known rare earth deposits is near California’s Mojave Desert. It had been in production, but legal actions, excessive regulations and low foreign prices forced a long suspension of operations, and Molycorp filed for bankruptcy in 2015, citing a heavy debt load and other problems.
That deposit underscores the enormous potential for finding billion-dollar deposits of numerous vital minerals right here in the USA – if we are permitted to look for them.
President Trump’s decisions to review Antiquities Act land closures, ease restrictions on onshore and offshore oil and gas drilling, and end stalemates over the Dakota and Keystone Pipelines are excellent steps in implementing his vision for American job creation and economic revitalization.
The president and Congress could also explore ways to get more oil flowing to the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which needs certain minimal amounts in the pipe for the oil to move during frigid weather. Recent discoveries along the North Slope have helped, and perhaps Prudhoe Bay’s declining oil production can be spurred some more by fracking. Ultimately, though, more Alaskan areas must be opened for drilling, and that will require White House, federal agency and congressional action.
Congress should also take a leadership role, by launching discussions about how much western state land really needs to remain under federal control, and how many of our best energy and mineral prospects really need to be kept off limits. Those land use policies severely affect job creation and economic opportunities for states, communities, families and our nation as a whole, for little environmental benefit.
Modern industrialized civilizations cannot long exist without the vital resources that come out of holes in the ground. Even wind turbines, solar panels, electric cars and internet services require a plethora of metals and other minerals – plus fossil fuel energy to extract those resources and convert them into usable products. It’s time to have a civil conversation about all of this.