Public lands in the American West may be on the verge of a major shift thanks to a recent series of rapid-fire policy changes from the Trump administration that have conservatives celebrating and environmentalists sounding the alarm.
The changes signal a cultural shift away from President Obama's legacy of conservation and environmental regulation to protect wildlands. Those policies led Obama to create a series of new national monuments in the West, setting aside more public land than any other US president.
While President Trump has not signaled he plans to undo all of Obama's legacy in the West, his Interior Department — which has been tight-lipped about any unifying strategy — has quietly carried out a series of policy changes that target symbolically important sites. When taken together these changes show the Trump administration is already in the midst of handing victories to those who want the federal government out of the West.
The most recent policy change came Monday when the Department of the Interior announced it would reverse course and allow motorized vehicles in a remote Utah canyon near the controversial Bears Ears National Monument. Access to Recapture Canyon has long been a point of contention between locals and the federal Bureau of Land Management (which is part of the Interior Department).
Days earlier, the BLM revealed that it was suspending surveys along the Red River, the winding waterway which divides Texas and Oklahoma. The surveys, proposed during the Obama administration, sparked controversy because they could have made public land out of what people in Texas believe is their private property.
The two locations, Recapture Canyon in Utah and the Red River in Texas, are separated by hundreds of miles but have two important things in common: both are epicenters of frustration with the federal government, and people involved in both cases attribute the recent policy changes to the Trump administration.
In the case of Recapture Canyon, the area was the site of a 2014 protest against federal land management policies, including access for vehicles in the canyon. The protest led by San Juan County commissioner Phil Lyman, involved dozens of demonstrators riding ATVs illegally through the canyon. Lyman and another protester were later convicted of misdemeanors for the ride but not before they became folk heroes to many westerners who have quarrels with the feds' approach to public land.
Lyman's protest came just weeks after the Bundy family led an armed standoff with federal agents in Nevada, exposing a growing sense of frustration among many in the rural west toward the federal government.
The Interior Department's decision this week stopped short of what many locals wanted — they believe there should be even greater access — but Lyman told BuzzFeed News he welcomed the announcement and felt "vindicated" for his protest in the remote Utah canyon.
"We’re 11 years waiting for what was supposed to be a six-month decision," Lyman said.
Lyman attributes the arrival of that decision to the Trump administration and the president's newly appointed Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke.
"I think the BLM would’ve stalled forever had Secretary Zinke not been in place," Lyman said.
The same goes for the Red River, where years of conflict suddenly lurched toward a resolution last week.
"It is very significant that you have a change in administration, and then now a couple of months into this administration you have a radical reversal of position," attorney Rob Henneke, who represents land owners involved in the dispute, told BuzzFeed News.
Like Recapture Canyon, the Red River case prompted considerable angst among locals, some of whom discovered BLM survey markers had been placed on their land without their knowledge. In a statement hailing the suspension of the surveys, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton characterized the previous move as an attempt to "justify a land grab involving 90,000 acres." And, like Henneke, Paxton pointed to Trump.
“This latest action by the Trump administration protects the property rights of Texans as defined by the US Supreme Court and prevents the federal government from infringing upon Texas’ sovereign borders,” Paxton said.
In a letter, the BLM said it had officially suspended the surveys after concluding that it used "incorrect methodology."
Despite the reversals, neither case is over. Henneke said the Red River litigation continues, and Lyman said questions remain about access to Recapture Canyon. But the policy changes show the Trump administration is looking closely at land issues and sending a message to the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion – the loose movement that would drive the feds from the West — that it is on the president's radar.
"To me, Recapture is a symbolic place," Lyman said, adding that for better or worse the site has come to represent much of the conflict over land in the West.
The recent shifts in Utah and Texas come on the heels of a series of other shifts as well. In February, Trump eliminated an Obama era coal mining regulation. Last month, flanked by western lawmakers, he signed an order repealing a BLM planning rule that was much-loathed in the region. Days later, Zinke signed orders intended to make it easier to extract fossil fuels from public lands.
“It’s certainly a signal that the war on coal is over,” Zinke said.
The Interior secretary also approved a $22 million coal lease in Utah. And last week, in a move widely viewed as symbolic, the BLM changed the cover photo on its homepage from a family hiking through scenic hills to a massive coal vein (it has since been changed again).
Conservatives, weary of the Obama years and what they see as excessive regulation, have welcomed these changes. In Lyman's case, he's optimistic that Trump will continue shifting the policies that govern the West.
"I’m a huge supporter," Lyman said of Trump. "I’m hopeful and I’m so happy with everything he’s done so far."
Environmentalists, however, aren't happy. In February, National Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh blasted the president, saying his mining order "frees Big Coal to bury pristine streams beneath toxic waste, pollute drinking water sources, kill fish and wildlife and scar the land."
A barrage of criticism against the Trump administration from the environmental community has continued in the ensuing months, and in March the Sierra Club said the president and Zinke were "gutting common sense" and revealing "where their allegiances lie."
“Donald Trump and Ryan Zinke have made it clear that they believe America’s public lands exist for only one purpose: fossil fuel development," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement. "This administration is selling us a bill of goods by handing our public lands to bankrupt coal companies for pennies on the dollar."