From his living-room window, Herm Hoops has an unobstructed view of Split Mountain, a jagged ridge that looms over the banks of the Green River in the center of Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument. Founded in 1915, the monument is known for its river rafting—the name Split Mountain comes from the fact that the river slices the pale-pink-and-straw-colored sandstone peak in half—and for the fossilized dinosaur remains that can still be seen in an exhibit hall where they were originally unearthed. Hoops first visited in 1972, when he was in his late 20s; he camped at Echo Park, a verdant canyon not far from where the Green and Yampa rivers meet, as the sun was setting. Hoops says he’d never seen such a beautiful place. “The sun was hitting the rocks and I wanted to die right then and there,” he told me.
In a few years the view from Hoops’s window may look very different. Seeking to expand domestic energy production, the Trump administration is rapidly opening up tens of thousands of acres of public lands that were once considered off limits to energy production. President Trump’s recent move to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante national monuments has attracted considerable attention, but those are not the only sensitive lands at stake. On December 12, the Bureau of Land Management will auction off more than 66,000 acres in Utah for oil and gas drilling, including parcels very close to Dinosaur National Monument. Several potential drilling sites further south along the Green River will also be auctioned, including one on the edge of a wildlife refuge that provides critical habitat to the razorback sucker, one of four endangered fish species in the Upper Colorado River basin. So important is this stretch of river that the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended pulling the parcel from the sale because it is “essential for the species’ recovery.”
In its push to expand energy development, the Bureau of Land Management’s state offices are eviscerating the processes that allowed for development while protecting environmentally vulnerable and valuable lands. Most notably, BLM is abandoning long-term management plans known officially as Master Leasing Plans, which are designed to balance development and conservation across some of the nation’s most cherished landscapes. An ambitious plan to speed up the leasing process, outlined in an October report from the Department of the Interior, is beginning to guide decision-making. Environmental impact assessments are being short-circuited and standard interagency consultations disrupted. According to interviews with more than a dozen employees from BLM, Fish and Wildlife, and conservation groups in Utah and Nevada, many of these changes are happening at the state or field office level where they are largely out of public view. A BLM employee in Nevada who asked not to be identified summed up the result: “They’ve taken a corrupt oil-and-gas-leasing process and made it substantially worse.”