- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 12, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Environmental groups on Tuesday blasted a legislative proposal by U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart that would create a small national park within the recently downsized Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, calling it nothing more than a ruse to try to appease conservationists and open more land for mining and grazing.

“This proposal is really an insidious, cynical ploy to undo the protections that we feel are critical,” said David Nimkin of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Nimkin and others spoke to reporters at the Utah State Capitol with about 150 people standing behind them holding signs that said, “Coal kills,” ”Stop Stewart’s theft” and “Stewart’s park is a dirty trick, give us back our monuments.”

It marked the third rally in the last two weeks in Salt Lake City by conservationists, tribes and others to voice their displeasure with an executive order signed last week by President Donald Trump to significantly shrink two national monuments: Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears.

The reductions received support from Utah’s Republican leaders but quickly faced several lawsuits.

Stewart’s proposal would create a small national park in Grand Staircase-Escalante and codify the new boundaries established by Trump, who cut the monument nearly in half and opened up about 1,500 square miles to potential coal mining, extraction and grazing.

The legislation also would create a board of local commissioners to create a management plan for the new national park.

Stewart, a Republican, scoffed at the notion that his proposal is a ploy and said he doesn’t understand how anyone would object to creating a sixth national park in Utah. It would showcase an area around Escalante Canyons that features waterfalls, arches and narrow canyons, he said.

The exact size of the national park is yet to be determined, but Stewart said it would be fairly small.

“Let’s invite people to Utah. Let’s show off our state,” Stewart said in a phone interview. “When people come from around the world, generally they come to see national parks. National parks are the crown jewel. Some of the areas of the monument are truly majestic.”

Scott Berry, co-owner of the Boulder Mountain Lodge near the monument, said the original size and type of protections set by President Bill Clinton in 1996 were ideal. Shrinking the nearly 3,000-square-mile (7,770-square-kilometer) monument and then creating a national park within it would change what makes the area so rugged and special, he said.

“We don’t want a fake national park in the Escalante,” Berry said. “We don’t want our towns basically turned into some kind of national park-Disneyland where there’s paved roads and private lands sold off to concessionaires and thousands and thousands of more people invited into this delicate country.”

The proposal is set to be discussed Thursday in Washington by a House Natural Resources subcommittee. Stewart said he’s optimistic he has the support needed to give it a good chance of passing.

It’s uncertain how the lawsuits would impact the legislation.

Past presidents have trimmed national monuments 18 times, but there’s never been a court ruling about whether the 1906 Antiquities Act - which allows presidents to create a monument - also lets them reduce one.

Helen Moser, a retiree from the Salt Lake City suburb of Holladay, braved the freezing cold to attend the event and held a sign saying, “Stop Stewart’s bait and switch national park tactic.” She’s most worried about a large coal reserve that could be open to mining near areas that include dinosaur fossils.

“It’s astonishing, the lack of protections,” Moser said. “Naturally, we’d be concerned about people going in and disrupting this. It would really disrupt the ability of people to enjoy the pristine nature.”

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