WASHINGTON — Even before President Donald Trump officially opened his high-profile review last spring of federal lands protected as national monuments, the Department of Interior was focused on the potential for oil and gas exploration at a protected Utah site, internal agency documents show.
The debate started as early as March 2017, when an aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked a senior Interior Department official to consider reduced boundaries for Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah to remove land that contained oil and natural gas deposits that had been set aside to help fund area public schools.
"Please see attached for a shapefile and pdf of a map depicting a boundary change for the southeast portion of the Bears Ears monument," said the March 15 email from Hatch's office. Adopting this map would "resolve all known mineral conflicts," the email said, referring to oil and gas sites on the land that the state's public schools wanted to lease out to bolster state funds.
The map Hatch's office provided, which was transmitted about a month before Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke publicly initiated his review of national monuments, was incorporated almost exactly into the much larger reductions Trump announced in December, shrinking Bears Ears by 85 percent.
Since taking office, Trump has been focused on expanding oil, gas and coal development and sweeping away Obama-era environmental initiatives that the administration contends hurt America's energy industry. The debate over shrinking national monuments sparked a fierce political battle over how much land needs federal protection that is now being fought in the courts.
Zinke has said the agency review process made no presumptions about the outcomes. "We want to make sure that everyone's voice is heard," Zinke said in May.
Most of the deliberations took place behind closed doors. The internal Interior Department emails — more than 25,000 pages in total — were obtained by the New York Times after it sued the agency with the assistance of the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale University Law School. The lawsuit cited the agency's failure to respond to an open-records request.
Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, did not comment on the emails.