Thursday, April 8, 2010

In February, a leaked Department of the Interior memorandum revealed that the Obama administration is considering new national monuments for Utah and other Western states. Cat out of the bag, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar quickly undertook to assure alarmed Utah officials that the Interior memorandum reflected only preliminary “brainstorming.”

However, last month, President Obama announced his offshore drilling strategy, disappointing much of his environmental constituency. In the wake of the offshore drilling announcement, it can only be a matter of time until Mr. Obama is pressured to make a grand gesture to reinvigorate the Democrats’ green base. Will Utah lands, as in 1996, be the target of presidential grandstanding? Or will Mr. Obama avoid further scheming with a Utah environmental organization whose leaders have been caught up in scandals?

Under the American Antiquities Act, huge expanses of public lands can be designated national monuments by stroke of the presidential pen. Utahans suddenly were reminded of this with President Clinton’s 1996 election-eve proclamation of the massive Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Clinton administration concealed and lied about its intention to designate the Escalante monument. The administration did not merely deceive Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and other Utah Republican officials. It also deceived Democrat Bill Orton, who was then the representative for Utah’s southern congressional district, which included the Escalante lands.

Mr. Clinton’s proclamation removed 1.7 million acres of Utah land, an expanse the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, from productive uses. Utah public reaction was so hostile that Mr. Clinton had to relocate the proclamation ceremony to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Despite its geographical disconnect, the proclamation ceremony served its purpose of enhancing Mr. Clinton’s re-election prospects. However, back across the Utah border, Mr. Orton would lose his bid for re-election as the direct result of constituent anger at Mr. Clinton.

In many respects, events are repeating themselves. A Democrat is in the White House. An election is approaching. Utah’s southern congressional district is again held by a Democrat, this time Jim Mattheson.

Like Mr. Orton, Mr. Mattheson is despised by members of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), the same organization that conspired so effectively with Clinton administration officials Bruce Babbitt, Carol M. Browner and Katherine McGinty to dump the Escalante monument on Utah. Like Mr. Orton in the 1990s, Mr. Mattheson has consistently opposed the alliance’s proposed Red Rock Wilderness Act, which would restrict more than 9 million acres of Utah public lands from productive uses. Meanwhile, the alliance remains the Svengali behind the push for more monuments in Utah.

As the Escalante lands were Mr. Clinton’s top priority, Utah’s San Rafael Swell appears to be the top Obama priority. The San Rafael Swell is not merely on Interior’s list of potential Obama monuments. Indeed, it was listed first among the 14 monument targets considered in the memorandum, reflecting the alliance’s strong influence within the Obama administration.

In 1992, Utah provided Mr. Clinton with the lowest percentage of popular vote of any state in the union, giving him little reason to care about the state’s ensuing 1996 popular vote repeat. In 2008, Utah gave Mr. Obama just 34 percent of its popular vote, a higher percentage than Wyoming and Oklahoma but still offering little downside to pandering to the alliance.

However, despite the similar convergence of the stars, there is a compelling reason why Mr. Obama should steer clear of further Utah monument spectaculars. Pursuant to the Escalante monument history, the alliance will forever be associated with concealment, lies, backroom deals and Machiavellian power plays. More recently, several heads of the alliance hydra have been lopped off because of admitted or claimed criminality.

In 2007, alliance board members Bert Fingerhut and Mark Ristow pleaded guilty to securities fraud, and both were sentenced to federal prison. In 2009, alliance board member Hansjorg Wyss resigned after being named “Person No. 7” in a grand jury indictment of Mr. Wyss’ company, Synthes Inc., which was accused of causing patients’ deaths by using off-label bone cement in spinal surgeries. Fingerhut, Ristow and Mr. Wyss all served on the alliance’s board during the Escalante monument skullduggery.

SUWA is the archetype of a corrupt environmental movement in general. Therefore, Mr. Obama may not want to continue to frame his monument initiatives as extensions of Chicago politics as usual. But then again, Chicago politics and environmental hardball were made for each other.

Paul Mortensen, a Utah lawyer, represents activist groups and local governments against SUWA in federal courts and agencies.

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