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Minnesota oil man named Craig wants a huge chunk of Utah wilderness

Under the Trump administration's guidance, federal land near cherished national monuments is up for grabs -- and a man named Craig Larson here in Minnesota is doing some of the grabbing.

Under the Trump administration's guidance, federal land near cherished national monuments is up for grabs -- and a man named Craig Larson here in Minnesota is doing some of the grabbing. Spenser Heaps Associated Press

It’s much easier than you might imagine to snatch up a few hundred acres of the American West. Thanks to an old 1920 leasing act, anyone – literally anyone – can “nominate” a piece of federal land for oil and gas development.

As the New Yorker reports, it costs nothing to apply.

At the moment, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is deciding who the hell is going to control a huge chunk of rugged Utah wilderness.

The parcel between Arches and Canyonlands National Parks could fall into the hands of a lawyer named Craig Larson, who makes his residence in Big Lake, Minnesota. 

More specifically, it could fall into the hands of Prairie Hills Oil and Gas LLC, an “exploration company” headquartered out of a Big Lake house that Larson co-owns. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the company has a stake in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field, but virtually no presence in Utah.

Yet, that could change if this deal goes through. Prairie Hills would have to win a lease auction run by the Bureau, which is supposed to take place in September. The minimum competitive bid per acre is about $2, "and that's often the price it goes for in areas like Moab," McKibben writes.

If Larson's bids are successful, he'd lease the land at $1.50 per acre for five years, and $2 for the next five. Roughly 110,000 acres are up for bid. (Think: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Edina, St. Louis Park, and Roseville combined.)

It’s part of a Trump administration plan to remove legal barriers to suck as much oil, gas, and other resources out of federal lands as possible – including allowing mining companies to set up shop near Minnesota’s cherished Boundary Waters. The Bureau has scheduled 20 lease sales like this one through the end of 2020. Three will be in Utah.

Larson didn’t answer requests for comment, but the New Yorker described him as both “polite” and “unhelpful.” He’s been mum on the company’s plans for the land with the press this whole time, including in this latest interview.

“I guess our actions speak for themselves,” he said. “I really don’t have much more to add.”

It’s a shockingly easy process – too easy, if you ask some of the people who live around the area. Arches and Canyonlands are both treasured national monuments, lands rich not only in natural beauty and historical significance, but tourism value. Bikers, rafters, hikers, and stargazers love the place.

Grand County Council chair Mary McGann, who represents the Utah county where these destinations are found, compared developing the nearby lands to putting an oil well “in the center of a Picasso or Van Gogh” in an interview with Bloomberg Law.

Meanwhile, Davis Filfred, a leader of the Navajo Nation, told the New Yorker he worried about what state the land will be in by the time his “kid’s grandkids” come along.

“Where they’ve [fossil fuel companies] come, the land is completely contaminated,” he said. “The air – it smells like a rotten egg.”

New Yorker writer Bill McKibben says in his piece that Larson doesn’t seem like a “villain" here. Everything he’s doing is completely legal. In all fairness, McKibben has no idea who the land rightfully belongs to – “Native people, all of us, the coyotes,” or maybe “God.”

“But the answer clearly shouldn’t be some guy named Craig,” he said.