The Trump administration has proposed selling 70 acres of an important wildlife conservation area adjacent to California’s San Bernardino National Forest to a limestone mining company after it dumped mineral waste materials on a portion of the federal land without permission.
The Bureau of Land Management is looking to sell the public lands to Omya Inc., a multinational corporation that operates a large limestone quarry in the Lucerne Valley. The land is part of a designated area that protects bighorn sheep and other wildlife.
In December 2005, the federal agency issued a notice of trespass after discovering that the quarry operation placed waste rock, known as overburden, on some 9 acres of federal land. The BLM says the planned sale would fulfill a settlement it reached with Omya in 2011 over the unauthorized use of the land, allowing the company to continue mining calcium carbonate in the area through 2055.
But conservationists view the proposal as the Trump administration rewarding a company for bad behavior. And the proposal raises obvious questions about the seriousness of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s repeated assurances that he would not pawn off federal lands.
“We are seeing a troubling pattern developing: Ryan Zinke says one thing to the public and does another for special interests and corporations,” Chris Saeger, executive director of the liberal environmental group Western Values Project, said in an email. “When the Interior Secretary repeatedly states that he will not sell public lands, the American public expects him to keep his word.”
This is at least the third time the BLM has eyed selling federal land under Zinke’s watch. The former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL has painted himself as a fierce advocate of public lands, repeatedly saying that he opposes disposing of them, either by sale or transferring control to states.
In August, facing widespread public outrage, Interior scrapped a proposal to sell more than 1,600 acres that until recently were protected as part of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The agency claimed in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune that Zinke “did not see the proposal before it went out and was not happy about it.” Still on the table, however, is a BLM plan to unload 200 acres in Emery County, Utah, that power company PacifiCorp hopes to incorporate into its Hunter power plant.
The land the BLM is looking to part with in California sits just north of Omya’s White Knob Quarry and about 8 miles northwest of Big Bear Lake. The area is part of a 39,000-acre chunk of public land called the Granite Mountain Wildlife Linkage Area of Critical Environmental Concern, which connects another designated ACEC to the north with the San Bernardino National Forest to the south. ACECs protect important historical, cultural or natural resources and require special management.
In its environmental assessment for the proposed sale, the BLM notes that the Granite Mountain Wildlife Linkage ACEC is “critical for bighorn sheep, golden eagles, desert tortoise, prairie falcons and several other species” and home to “numerous rare and sensitive plants.” But these plants and animals have not been documented in the acres targeted for sale, according to the draft plan.
Paul Malsch, director of sustainability for Omya, said in an email that the encroachment onto public lands occurred adjacent to where the company was placing excavated rock and soil on its own private property and that at no time was critical habitat affected.
“We see this resolution and sale as a non-political 13-year process that has been moving forward under three different administrations,” he said. “From a formality perspective, we’ve dotted every ‘I’, crossed every ’T, and met the requirements asked of us by every layer of government involved, which included public hearings and extended comment periods.”
Malsch noted that biological surveys an environmental consultant conducted on behalf of Omya in 2012 indicate that the area does not contain any of the species protected by the Granite Mountain Wildlife ACEC.
“We understand the need to protect critical habitat, which is why our area of purchase is outside of the critical areas,” he said.
The BLM proposal would amend the 70-acre area’s designation from a protected site to general public land. The agency has the authority to consider selling public land under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, but only if the land meets certain criteria, including: being “difficult and uneconomic to manage”; if the land is “no longer required” for the specific purpose for which it was acquired; and if its sale would “serve important public objectives,” including the “expansion of communities and economic development.”
The agency noted in a release last month that the Omya’s mining operation employs 50 people and generates more than $800,000 annually in county taxes.
“The BLM strives to be a good neighbor in the communities we serve, and part of that is listening to what the public has to say about this proposed land sale and what it could mean for the area,” said Beth Ransel, manager of the BLM California Desert District.
The BLM’s draft plan outlines two other alternatives. One is to take no action, a move that would leave Omya responsible for submitting a mining operation plan for the full area. The other calls for selling 45 acres, which would allow the federal government to maintain ownership of three wetlands and other sensitive habitat within the 70-acre parcel. In addition to the wetland areas, which total about three-fourths of an acre, there are roughly 3.4 acres of ephemeral stream habitat, that is, streams that flow only after precipitation.
These are important conservation lands. They belong to the American public. Nada Culver of the BLM Action Center at The Wilderness Society
The BLM’s preference, however, is to sell the full 70 acres. Doing so would “eliminate the land trespass while still meeting the relevance and importance values of the remainder of the Granite Mountain Wildlife Linkage ACEC,” reads the environmental assessment.
But the proposal is “profoundly disconcerting,” according to Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of the BLM Action Center at the conservation group The Wilderness Society.
“It’s really hard as a member of the public to accept that this is the answer,” she said by phone. “These are important conservation lands. They belong to the American public.”
The Federal Lands Policy and Management Act makes clear that public lands are to remain under federal ownership unless “it is determined that disposal of a particular parcel will serve the national interest.” The law also directs the interior secretary to “give priority to the designation and protection of areas of critical environmental concern.”
“They are violating and ignoring every obligation in sight as to how to manage our public lands,” said Culver, adding that it’s “very hard to see how it is ever in the public interest to reward” a company that trespassed on federal lands and damaged sensitive habitat.
Culver said The Wilderness Society will be submitting comments as part of an open public comment period, which ends Jan. 4. Along with closely analyzing the impact removing these acres would have on the larger ecosystem, the BLM should acknowledge the precedent such a sale would set, she said.
As part of the 2011 settlement with the BLM and the state of California, Omya agreed to monitor the drainage where it disposed of mining rock debris, repair a haul road on BLM land to protect several drainages in the area, and remove an explosives storage facility that it built on BLM land without permission. The settlement also required Omya to apply to the BLM for a direct purchase of the 70 acres the company is hoping to use for future disposal of waste material.
In 2015, Omya got approval from the San Bernardino County Planning Commission to expand the quarry operation’s lifespan through 2055 and its footprint by 40 acres, as the San Bernadino Sun reported.
It’s unclear whether Zinke supports, or is even aware of, the proposed land sale. The Interior Department did not respond to HuffPost’s request seeking comment.
Earlier this month, Zinke appointed Ellis Ivory, a retired Utah homebuilder and second cousin of anti-federal-land Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory (R), to serve on a newly resurrected National Park System Advisory Board. In an interview with HuffPost, Ellis Ivory distanced himself from his relative, saying he’s “not a crusader for” state control of public land but does “understand [Ken Ivory’s] arguments and passion.” Ellis Ivory supported Ken Ivory’s pro-land-transfer nonprofit with a $6,000 donation in 2012.
This story has been updated with comments from Omya.