- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 23, 2017

President Bill Clinton’s decision in 1996 to create the sprawling Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah was so incredibly controversial that he couldn’t even set foot in the state to make the announcement, instead holding a photo-op at the Grand Canyon in neighboring Arizona.

Now, two decades later, the Trump administration is considering paring down the expansive site in what environmentalists, Western land advocates and energy industry leaders agree is a key test of the century-old Antiquities Act, the 1906 law that gives presidents authority to create monuments.

With the possible exception of the Bears Ears National Monument, also in Utah, Grand Staircase-Escalante is by far the most hotly debated of all the monuments currently under review by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is taking a second look at more than 20 locations across the country. It was the first example of what became commonplace during the Obama administration: A Democratic president using monument designations to please environmental supporters, and showing for the first time in recent history how a monument could become a battleground over energy development, conservation, environmentalism and local control over land use.

In the case of the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase — which, without a doubt, is home to breathtaking natural wonders — the fact that it’s more than 20 years old hasn’t calmed the furor over its creation.

Opponents of the designation — including current and past Utah officials who say the Clinton White House steamrolled over their concerns and didn’t even bother to tell them of the pending announcement until the day before — believe Mr. Zinke and President Trump have in front of them a key opportunity to right a decades-old wrong that’s still harming local economies in the state, greatly depressing energy development and stands as a bright reminder of just how much unchecked power presidents wield under the Antiquities Act.

“You can’t overstate how outraged the people in Utah and across the West were by this action. It’s a wound that has not healed. They haven’t gotten over it,” said William Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, an organization that led a yearslong legal fight against the creation of the monument that finally ceased after it became clear the George W. Bush administration would not reverse Mr. Clinton’s move.

There’s no greater example of the controversy associated with Grand Staircase, Mr. Pendley and others say, than the fact Mr. Clinton, then-Vice President Al Gore and environmental activists such as actor Robert Redford chose to hold a signing ceremony in Arizona rather than in Utah. The very creation of the monument, critics say, was much more about shutting off the vast supply of coal that sits beneath the monument than it was about creating a new national treasure.

Utah officials knew that at the time, and the Clinton White House made the shrewd political decision to avoid the state entirely when making the designation rather than risk embarrassing mass protests.

“Clinton was lying to Utah officials right up until the eleventh hour when he designated that monument,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.

Longstanding rumors are that Mr. Redford and other environmentalists were told of the decision to create the monument even before Utah officials, including then-Gov. Mike Leavitt, a Republican.

“As the governor, I had not seen a map. I had not read the proclamation or, for that matter, was I even invited,” he later testified to Congress. “This isn’t about courtesy, it is about process. It is about public trust. A major land decision, perhaps the biggest land decision that has been made or will be made in the next two decades, had occurred. Obviously, this is not the way public land decisions should or were ever intended to be made.”

Mr. Leavitt could not be reached for comment. Bruce Babbitt, Mr. Clinton’s interior secretary at the time, did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s unclear what Mr. Zinke will do with respect to Grand Staircase, though a decision is expected as soon as Thursday. It’s possible he could recommend no changes, suggest redrawing the monument’s boundaries or even call for a full revocation, though the latter would be an uphill legal battle.

With a decision imminent, both sides are making their last-ditch cases. Opponents of the monument point out that federal data show that roughly 40 percent of the land sits atop recoverable energy reserves, potentially providing millions of dollars in royalty payments and hundreds of jobs for local Utah economies. A Utah Geological Survey report, heavily promoted by the GOP-led House Natural Resources Committee, found that the total value of energy mineral resources on the land is somewhere between $223 billion and $330 billion, with the vast majority of that coming from coal reserves.

At the other end of the spectrum, supporters say the monument has become such a tourist attraction that any potential changes would bring their own devastating effects. A recent study by Headwaters Economics found that tourism composes about 44 percent of all private employment in the areas around the monument, and that Utah’s outdoor industry, of which Grand Staircase-Escalante is a major piece, pours more than $12 billion into the state’s economy each year.

Local business leaders say changes to the monument could crush their ability to make money off of tourism, and that the economic damage to Utah businesses would far outweigh any benefits associated with energy development in the area.

“Families have literally invested in the continuance of our local national monument,” a coalition of area businesses wrote in a letter to Mr. Zinke this week. “As we emphasized in our public comments, shrinking the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument will hurt our businesses and destroy what our community has built over two decades.”

No one disputes the beauty of the specific attractions within the monument boundaries. It contains the “Grand Staircase” itself, a series of descending plateaus; the Kaiparowits Plateau, which contains a host of ancient fossils; and Canyons of the Escalante, a series of natural canyons.

But critics say the area, much like Bears Ears, also contains vast areas of nothingness that, while beautiful, contain no historic sites or artifacts that need to be protected under the Antiquities Act.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and a chief opponent of the monument since its creation, says he favors a full revocation of both Grand Staircase and Bears Ears but will accept whatever final decision the administration makes.

“Sen. Hatch has stated that his top priority is ensuring that the people of Utah, particularly in San Juan, Kane, and Garfield Counties have a voice in the process of both protecting and managing these lands, which Secretary Zinke’s review has made possible,” Matt Whitlock, a spokesman for the senator, said in a statement. “While he has urged the Trump administration to fully rescind these monuments, he will accept whatever the Secretary recommends to the President at the end of a fair and thorough review process.”

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