Revealed: the full extent of Trump’s ‘meat cleaver’ assault on US wilderness

“The lobbyist-filled Trump administration didn’t just carve and cut corners for these oil-funded front groups,” says Jayson O’Neill, of the Western Values Project, a conservation group, “it gleefully took a meat cleaver to our national monuments and land protections.”

Revealed: the full extent of Trump’s ‘meat cleaver’ assault on US wilderness


After four years of Trump, protected places such as national monuments and wildlife refuges have opened to oil drilling, new maps show – with more on the way
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    Clark Tenakhongva resides on the Hopi reservation in north-eastern Arizona, but his true home is a five-hour drive north in Utah, amid the rust-colored canyons and jutting buttes of Bears Ears, a beloved ancestral site of the Hopi people.

    “For me, when I go there, it’s got its own place in my heart,” said Tenakhongva, the vice-chairman of the Hopi tribal council. “I feel like I’m back home.”

    But after Donald Trump took office in 2017, Bears Ears was the focus of a sophisticated, pro-development pressure campaign.


    Photograph: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
    Photograph: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

    Source: The Wilderness Society Action Fund and Bing Maps
    For thousands of years, Native nations of the US south-west lived in the majestic canyons of Bears Ears.
    But it was land that conservative politicians and corporate interests also sought to control.
    So in late 2016, the Hopi celebrated when the Obama administration protected Bears Ears by declaring it a national monument, sheltering it from development and extraction.
    Just one year later, after Donald Trump took office, he drastically reduced the size of the monument by 85%. The administration justified the rollback by pointing to some local residents who opposed the monument. In truth it was also responding to a push by groups with deep ties to major GOP donors and the extractive industries.


    What has happened at Bears Ears is not an exception. Under Donald Trump, the government has auctioned off millions of acres of public lands to the fossil fuel industry, the Guardian can reveal, in the most comprehensive accounting to date of how much public land the administration has handed over to oil and gas drillers over the past four years.

    While the US government is supposed to be an impartial arbiter of how public lands should be used, Trump has stacked the administration with former fossil-fuel lobbyists and conservative activists. Often, the department sells access to these lands at rock bottom prices and in places that are sacred to tribal communities, important to imperiled animals, and critical to prevent runaway climate change.

    New research conducted by the Wilderness Society Action Fund, and shared with the Guardian, has found:

    • Of the more than 600m acres of US public land, the Trump administration has leased 5.4m acres – an area the size of New Jersey – to oil and gas companies.
    • Drilling from the leases could result in the equivalent of 4.1bn metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions – heating the planet as much as more than 1,051 power plants burning coal for a year.
    • Trump has sought to remove protections in some of the most ecologically sensitive places in the country, from the Arctic national wildlife refuge in Alaska to the Lower Rio Grande Valley national wildlife refuge in Texas.
    • The interior department has also leased 4.9m acres in the Gulf of Mexico to drillers, which could have the same climate impact as putting a million more cars on the road for a year.
    • Should Trump win another term, leasing may grow. A total of 50m acres are being made available to drillers in proposed plans for public lands.

    “Throughout his term, the president has stripped protections from wild places that provide critical habitat for many plants and animals, clean water and offer fantastic opportunities for recreation and exploration,” the Wilderness Society Action Fund explains in a new report. “Once they are sold off to the fossil fuel industry, sometimes for as little as $2 an acre, these lands will be scarred by drilling rigs, roads, pipelines and pollution wherever drilling occurs.”

     Trump signs an executive order in December 2017 drastically reducing the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah. Photograph: George Frey/Getty Images

    An interior department spokesman, Conner Swanson, argued that the Trump administration had leased the least amount of acreage of any administration since the leasing data was first collected in 1985, but he did not respond to a request for that data.

    The Trump administration has in fact offered almost as many acres for drilling in four years – almost 25m acres – as the Obama administration did in eight years. The acreage ultimately leased by oil companies under Trump is a fraction of what was offered, in part owing to unfavorable market conditions for fossil fuels, and is comparable to Obama’s record.

    The influence of industry-aligned pressure groups in Bears Ears exemplifies a broader trend under the Trump administration.

    For the Hopi, Bears Ears “is their church and altar”, said Patrick Gonzales-Rogers, the executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The Hopi and their allies sought to protect Bears Ears “in the same way you would protect the cathedral at Notre Dame”.

    Yet the government rode roughshod over the objections of Native Americans to cater to a handful of special interests, including the uranium mining company Energy Fuels, which lobbied to shrink the monument in the hopes of future mining opportunities, and the Sutherland Institute, a Utah thinktank.

    Founded to “trumpet” conservative principles, Sutherland has received more than $1m from Koch Brothers-linked foundations and millions more from other wealthy benefactors. It is a member of the State Policy Network of influential conservative ideological groups, many of which advocate for weakening federal environmental laws and transferring federal lands to state control.

     Outline of human hands imprinted on a rock face in Bears Ears. Photograph: Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

    In 2016 and 2017, it helped lead a concerted pressure campaign against the Bears Ears monument – flooding news outlets with quotes and op-eds, publishing videos and organizing a rally in Washington. A Sutherland staffer even drafted language that the Utah legislature approved calling on Trump to eliminate protections for Bears Ears.

    Throughout 2017, Sutherland also maintained steady communication with interior department appointees, exchanging talking points, research and press releases about Bears Ears and sometimes even obtaining inside intel about forthcoming decisions, according to public records obtained by the Guardian. “This is fantastic; thank you for sharing!!” wrote an interior appointee in an August 2017 email in response to a Sutherland report attacking modern monument designations. Sutherland did not respond to a request for comment.

    “The lobbyist-filled Trump administration didn’t just carve and cut corners for these oil-funded front groups,” says Jayson O’Neill, of the Western Values Project, a conservation group, “it gleefully took a meat cleaver to our national monuments and land protections.”

    In December 2017, Trump traveled to Utah to deliver the conservative thinktank world a victory. Surrounded by GOP officials and activists at the state capitol, he announced the effective abolition of Bears Ears monument.

    The Hopi and four other tribes vowed to fight back and sued in federal court, where lawsuits are ongoing.

    But for America’s public lands, Bears Ears was just the beginning.

     In Bears Ears, Native Americans carved petroglyphs into what is now known as newspaper rock. Photograph: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

    Near Carlsbad Caverns, oil pads and methane clouds

    Carlsbad, New Mexico, is located between two remarkable national parks: the towering Guadalupe Mountains and the glittering Carlsbad Caverns, consisting of 119 caves strung with stalactites. Over the last 19 years, the Rev David Rogers has watched Carslbad transform from a sleepy desert town to a booming outpost of the oil and gas industry’s expansion into the Permian basin.

    The basin, rich with fossil fuels, spanning western Texas and south-eastern New Mexico, is a key reason the US is becoming one of the world’s top petroleum producers. Drilling took off during the Obama administration when companies began fracking, and Trump officials have set into motion plans to keep it growing.

    But behind that economic success story are untold costs – both to people and the planet.


    Photograph: Justin Hamel/The Guardian
    Photograph: Justin Hamel/The Guardian

    Source: The Wilderness Society Action Fund and Bing Maps

    As the industry grew, the breaking point for Rogers was when a drilling pad was installed across the street from the home of a church family. Noxious fumes, nonstop industrial noise and dead birds followed, as Rogers tells it.

    The family reported headaches, nosebleeds and respiratory problems. Earlier this year, a pipe broke in the middle of the night and spewed a fluid drilling byproduct over the family’s home and livestock.

    The town, and nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park, is located in the middle of vast oil and gas fields, much of which are public lands.

    The Trump administration has opened up significant swaths of land around Carlsbad for oil and gas drilling, adding to the massive areas that had already been leased prior to him taking office.


    The Bureau of Land Management is working on a proposal to let companies use more of the 2.7m acres of land that the government controls around Carlsbad. Its preferred approach would open 97% of the area to oil and gas leasing, which could result in upwards of 6,400 new wells.

    The government says there would be “minimal” effects on health and safety, although the industry is already worsening air quality in the region. The expansion would bring an additional 1,584 jobs over 10 years, it said.

     The Rev David Rogers says families in his church have experienced health problems after drilling pads were installed near their home. Photograph: Justin Hamel/The Guardian

    The health threats of living near drilling are well-documented, but fiercely disputed by the industry. One recent study, for example, found that pregnant people exposed to high levels of flaring – when drillers burn off excess gas – have a 50% higher chance of giving birth early.

    “I began to realize how skewed the entire system is that allows a flagrant exploitation of resources without any consideration to long-term environmental costs and long-term environmental health effects,” Rogers said.

    The bureau has declined to try to estimate the impact of expanded drilling in the Carlsbad area on the climate, despite noting human-made climate change has already made the south-western US almost 2F (1.1C) hotter and could make it 3.5F to 9.5F hotter by the end of the century.

    In fact, the agencies that manage public lands have fought to make it easier for industry to emit planet-warming carbon without consequence.

    Fossil fuel pollution, like the methane released by New Mexico drillers, are the dominant cause of global temperature rise. The methane plume above north-western New Mexico is so big it has been visible via satellite. (The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association did not respond to questions about its role in lobbying for less regulation and expanded drilling.)

     Methane gas flaring out of a factory in Carslbad. Photograph: Justin Hamel/The Guardian

    In its waning days, the Obama administration finalized a regulation to crack down on methane spewing from federal lands.

    Powerful oil and gas trade groups such as the Western Energy Alliance and the American Petroleum Institute bitterly opposed the move, saying the rule was unlawful and they could cut methane emissions on their own.

    When Trump took office, he filled the federal government with staunch industry allies and conservative operatives who quickly got to work trying to withdraw the standards. They included Kate MacGregor, a former lobbyist who helped lead the methane rollback and won the drillers’ approval. In a 2017 letter to the department, the Western Energy Alliance commended “the efforts of Kate MacGregor regarding executing on the energy dominance agenda”. (The Alliance’s president, Kathleen Sgamma, later told the Guardian she saw no fault in “praising effective staff”.)

    MacGregor, who became the deputy interior secretary, had at least 20 meetings and calls with industry groups, some specifically about the rollback, records reveal. “We’ll call Kate” became a kind of catchphrase for industry groups facing regulatory hurdles, according to a recording obtained by Reveal from a 2017 meeting.

    In September 2018, the department finished gutting the methane regulation and conservationists sued. For now, its fate is in legal limbo but the Trump leases in New Mexico are certain to make the methane problem worse. Oil and gas leases sold under Trump in the Carlsbad region alone could create the equivalent of 93.6m metric tons of carbon dioxide – more than the total emissions from Washington state for an entire year, according to the Wilderness Society Action Fund.

     Trump rolled back methane regulations on federal lands. Photograph: Justin Hamel/The Guardian

    Red Desert migration under threat from drilling

    The Red Desert is a sky-bending expanse of sagebrush steppe in south central Wyoming, the sort of place one could explore for hours on scarce dirt roads and never see another human.

    Sometimes called “The Big Empty”, it’s a place that recommends a spare tire and some extra gas, because it’ll be a long, harsh, lonely hike to town if your car sputters.

    In 2013, this big, wild space revealed a long-hidden secret.


    Michael Kirby Smith/The New York Times
    Photograph: Michael Kirby Smith/The New York Times

    Source: The Wilderness Society Action Fund and Bing Maps
    Scientists at the University of Wyoming discovered the Red Desert was the starting point of a wondrous large-mammal migration.
    Each year, hundreds of mule deer – a struggling species unique to the west – travel a 300-mile round trip from the Red Desert to forests south of Jackson Hole and back to feast on fresh greenery and bulk up in anticipation of winter.
    “It is the longest migration so far recorded for the species,” says Dr Matt Kauffman, a scientist with the US Geological Survey and the leader of the Wyoming Migration Initiative that maps migration corridors across Wyoming and the west. Each animal learns the route from its herd and follows the path “for the rest of its life”, he said.
    But around and within the corridor, land being authorized for oil and gas drilling is on the rise. This magnificent migration depends on the region’s relatively undisturbed landscape, which includes private land as well as vast tracts of public land.


    Despite a professed commitment to protect big game migration corridors, the Trump administration has opened such habitat across the west to oil and gas drilling in pursuit of its “energy dominance” agenda. The corridor has not been spared, despite its marginal oil and gas potential.

    Since January 2017, Trump’s interior department has sold more than 33,000 acres of oil and gas leases in the corridor, according to data compiled from government sources by the Wyoming Outdoor Council, one of the state’s oldest conservation organizations.

    Conservationists are concerned that even more oil and gas leasing is on the way, as the administration works to write a new management plan for public lands in and around the corridor. Trump administration management plans have tended to favor industrial development at the expense of all else, they say.

     Honeycomb Buttes in Wyoming’s Red Desert. Photograph: EcoFlight

    John Rader, a conservation advocate with the Wyoming Outdoors Council, said some plans open 90% or more of public land to oil and gas leasing.

    “It is not multiple use,” Rader said. “There is no balance.”

    Oil and gas drilling can disrupt migrations, forcing skittish deer to avoid areas that they rely on for food. And mule deer can’t afford hits to their population health – they are already in decline across the west. Other species in the area, including sage grouse, elk and antelope, could also be at risk.

    The abundance of big game in the region has made it a magnet for hunters who stock their larders with its deer, elk and antelope each autumn. Conservationists, hunters and more are calling on the Trump administration to rethink its plans for the fragile habitat. Once broken by industrial activity, big game corridors can’t be put back together again.

    The Red Desert-to-Hoback migration corridor, with its austere beauty, is “a special place to go hunting”, says John Gale, the conservation director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

    “If there is any proposed development for the corridor that includes any surface disturbance […] we can’t in good conscience support those types of activities,” he said.

     Killpecker Sand Dunes in Wyoming’s Red Desert. Photograph: EcoFlight

    The fate of public lands – and whether the pendulum swings toward conservation or more extraction – hinges on the upcoming election. A President Joe Biden could undo some of Trump’s rollbacks, though so could a legal fight over one of Trump’s own public lands appointees.

    Since mid-2019, William Perry Pendley has been the de facto leader of the department’s Bureau of Land Management, which controls nearly 250m acres in the US. A longtime activist in the conservative legal movement against environmental laws and regulations, Pendley opposes federal land ownership, has joked about killing endangered species and denies climate change.

    But Pendley was never confirmed by the Senate, and a federal judge recently ruled that his tenure and some of the decisions he oversaw were thus illegal. The interior department has called the ruling “outrageous” and “erroneous”.

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    Many of Pendley’s acts will now be open to litigation, including drilling and mining plans for areas including Bears Ears and tracts in Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. It is up to judges to decide – but for conservationists the prospect of public lands officials facing legal consequences for their actions, at least, is heartening.

    Nada Culver, a vice-president at the Audubon Society, said Pendley “wielded the sword of director to cut conservation out of every land use plan”.

    “This administration has conducted a nonstop assault on our public lands, from habitat for the greater sage-grouse to the sacred cultural values of Bears Ears,” she said. “It’s all in their rifle sights and our planet’s climate is the collateral damage.”

    How did the Wilderness Society Action Fund crunch this data?

    The Wilderness Society Action Fund evaluated the potential climate emissions from leases sold to oil and gas drillers under the Trump administration between January 2017 and September 2020.

    TWS combined location-specific data on leases sold with the US Energy Information Administration’s assumptions about the oil and gas opportunities within different regions. The group then estimated the climate pollution that would result from drilling on public lands, with methods used by the Environmental Protection Agency.

    The numbers in this article reflect projections for median oil and gas development. In reality, the industry could drill more, or less.

    • An earlier version of the nation-wide map of acres of land leased and sold for oil and gas drilling was amended on 26 October 2020. A total of 10.6 million acres across the US were leased and 108 million acres were offered.