by Paul Larmer
"God's handiwork is
everywhere in the natural beauty of the Escalante Canyons and in
the Kaiparowits Plateau, in the rock formations that show layer by
layer the billions of years of geology, in the fossil record of
dinosaurs and other prehistoric life, in the remains of ancient
civilizations like the Anasazi Indians. "
protecting it, we live up to our obligation to preserve our natural
heritage. We are saying simply, "Our parents and grandparents saved
the Grand Canyon for us; today, we will save the grand Escalante
Canyons and the Kaiparowits Plateau of Utah for our children."
* President Bill Clinton, Sept. 18,
Though the day starts
cool and gray, by noon the sun breaks through the clouds, casting
golden rays on some 2,000 people gathered on the south rim of
Arizona's Grand Canyon. Environmentalists, Native Americans,
government bureaucrats, politicians, scholars and even a few movie
stars mingle in the warm September light, excitedly awaiting a
As the ceremony begins, a few
Hopi elders rise and deliver a blessing: "This is a time of
healing," they say. "The healing must begin."
Then, with a stroke of his pen, President
Clinton signs a document establishing 1.7 million acres in southern
Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Thanks to
the little-known Antiquities Act of 1906, which grants the
president executive powers to designate new monuments, the
declaration is final. No Congress, no mind-numbing or raucous
public hearings, no mess: "Here Utah, have a monument."
The crowd roars its approval, but three men
wearing black ribbons on their lapels stand quietly in the back.
Perhaps the only time they smile during the ceremony is when the
chopping of a helicopter interrupts Utah writer and wilderness
advocate Terry Tempest Williams at the precise moment she asks the
assembly to "listen to the silence." These three men from Kane
County, the home of the new monument, are virtually the only Utah
officials present, and they are mad as hell.
After all, the battle over wilderness has raged
for more than a decade here. County commissioners sent bulldozers
into proposed wilderness areas one Fourth of July, wilderness
supporters have been hung in effigy and environmentalists have
decided that compromise and consensus are dirty words. It remains
to be seen whether the designated monument will heal Utah's
environmental war, or prolong it.
announcement at the Grand Canyon, solemn and angry locals in Kanab,
Utah, 70 miles to the north, file into the high school gym for
their own ceremony. To protest their loss of rights, they wear
black arm bands and bear signs reading, "Shame on you Clinton" and
"Why Clinton, Why? You're our President." And while
environmentalists in Washington, D.C., release festively colored
balloons on tethers, schoolchildren in Kanab free 50 black balloons
to symbolically warn other states that the president could
unilaterally lock away their lands, too.
years, Kanab, pop. 3,000, has eagerly awaited coal development by
Andalex, a Dutch-owned company that would tap into a mother lode of
coal - 62 billion tons according to a recent federal analysis -
under the remote, grassy Kaiparowits Plateau. The 50-year project
was to provide locals with hundreds of decent-paying jobs and
billions of dollars in state and local taxes. Now, with one simple
proclamation, Clinton had derailed the
Utah's mostly Republican congressional
delegation, which fought hard to keep the Kaiparowits open to
mining, blasted Clinton for steamrolling Westerners. "This is the
mother of all land grabs," said Sen. Orrin Hatch. "An outrageous,
arrogant approach to public policy," echoed Sen. Bob Bennett.
Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, vowed to cripple the
monument by stripping it of funds while state and county officials
began crafting a legal challenge to the designation. The outrage
wasn't confined to Utah. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, immediately
introduced a bill to prevent the president from making a similar
designation in his state without full public participation and
The monument will not be
managed by the National Park Service, but by the Bureau of Land
Management (BLM), which already administers the area and has
long-standing relationships with local communities. Grazing,
hunting and fishing will still be allowed (see accompanying
This helps some, but not a lot: "I'd like
to see local people involved," said Kane County Commissioner Joe
Judd. "I'd like to see taxes for school trust lands (in the
monument), and I'd like to see 900 well-paying jobs. But I come
across as un-American because the president says this land should
be a national monument. Well, the reason this land is so beautiful
is because we've been taking care of it for the last 150 years."
Before Clinton's announcement, but after rumors
had been leaked to the national press, Judd flew back to
Washington, D.C., to confront White House officials. "They said
they knew nothing about it," he said. "Then the next day we find
out it's a done deal and that it's been in the works for four
Even some environmentalists felt miffed
by the administration's secretiveness. "All kinds of people I work
with are angry about the process that didn't happen," said Bill
Hedden, a Grand County council member who also works for Grand
Canyon Trust, the environmental group that helped host the
And while newspapers on either coast
ran glowing editorials about the plan, most Utah papers - even the
generally pro-environment Salt Lake Tribune - took positions
decrying the lack of public participation, if not the plan itself.
From defense to
Behind the anger, some Utahns were
searching their souls. How had control over public land management
been so easily wrested from their hands? And would the new monument
divide or unite the state in its future struggles over wilderness
Less than a year ago, the state's
political leaders seemed on the verge of resolving the struggle
over Utah's unprotected wild lands once and for all. They passed
legislation based on county recommendations that would have
designated as wilderness approximately 1.8 million acres of land
controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (HCN, 12/25/95). The
rest would have been thrown open to development, including large
portions of the Kaiparowits Plateau.
Environmentalists complained bitterly about the
delegation's bill - they were pushing for 5.7 million acres of BLM
wilderness - and the process, which they said gave too much
influence to rural counties and ignored pro-environmental
sentiments in Utah's densely-populated Wasatch Front.
Led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance,
environmentalists nationalized the debate, calling on people across
the country to stand up for Utah's magnificent wild lands, to
pressure their members of Congress to defeat the Utah delegation's
wilderness bill. It worked. Last December, opposition within the
House of Representatives forced Hansen to pull his bill before a
The defeat created a political vacuum, and
into it stepped the Clinton administration. One anonymous White
House official says administration staffers had been on the lookout
for environmental victories they could achieve without
congressional support. They'd considered making Alaska's Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge a monument, but decided that the president
could use his veto powers to stop destructive oil drilling in the
refuge, so they targeted Utah instead. A team from the Department
of the Interior, including Interior Solicitor John Leshy, and some
outsiders, was asked to work out the details.
Administration officials involved realized the
designation was a stroke of political genius. It would resonate
well with a public irritated at Republican efforts to roll back
environmental laws and regulations; it would shore up the
president's green credentials; and it wouldn't affect Clinton's
prospects in Utah, where he had finished third behind Ross Perot in
1992. Some say Clinton also got swept away by enthusiasm after
announcing a month earlier that the administration would halt a
gold mine near Yellowstone National Park. "It's fun to be
president; let's do some more of this," he reportedly told a nearby
staffer at the park ceremony.
But it seems that
even the administration was caught a little off-guard. Officials
were still crafting the monument proposal when reporter Frank
Clifford of the Los Angeles Times broke news of it. Then it
appeared in the Washington Post, and the White House decided it
could wait no longer.
Already, officials were
inundated with pleas from both sides. Utah's delegation begged the
president's staff to back off and let Utahns decide the fate of the
wildest country left in the lower 48 states. They told Clinton that
Utah's schoolchildren would suffer if Andalex couldn't develop and
pay fees on 200,000 acres of school trust lands scattered
throughout the proposed monument. Finally, they resorted to
name-calling in the media: They said the president was a midnight
land-grabber seeking to burnish his image just weeks before the
November election. Some even charged that environmentalists cozy
with the administration had crafted the
Utah environmentalists denied the
allegation and said the Utah congressional delegation itself had
set the stage for Clinton's decision.
were aligned," said an exultant Ken Rait of the Southern Utah
Wilderness Alliance. "The backdrop was created by the arrogance of
the Utah delegation which snubbed much of its constituency. It
pushed a wilderness bill that tried to bring down the spirit and
intent of the wilderness act, (and that) put Utah public lands on
the national map."
Added the Grand Canyon
Trust's Hedden: "The creation of the monument was a reaction to the
fact that we are so polarized in this state that we can't
communicate at all with each other. We have failed to come up with
a solution on our own, so basically we took ourselves out of the
What happens now?
Will Utahns hold a permanent grudge or will they
sit down together to craft an agreeable management plan for the
So far, cooperation seems unlikely.
Kane County Commissioner Judd says his county will now back away
from an expected agreement with state and federal agencies to
reintroduce California condors to the area. "We're not going to
sign it now," said Judd. "If one of those condors sits its butt in
the monument, why, then, we've got an endangered species problem."
"We're going to be a whole lot less cooperative
with the federal government," echoes Kane County's attorney Colin
Winchester. "I know it's playground stuff - you know, my daddy's
bigger than yours - but that's the way we feel now."
Others believe that the president's move will
ultimately be seen as a watershed leading to more peaceful
resolutions of public land issues. Writer Terry Tempest Williams
says she believes many Utahns support the monument. "To hear what's
going on in the papers, you'd think Utah is in a wake," she said.
"But my family is Republican and they're absolutely thrilled. This
is one important step toward a growing conservation ethic that we
are seeing in Utah. I think things will calm down and the hard work
Pollsters at the Salt Lake Tribune
are waiting for the anger to subside before trying to find out what
Utahns really think. The Deseret News, however, released an early
poll showing 49 percent opposed to the monument and 29 percent for
it; 61 percent said the process used to create it was unfair.
Beyond the immediate question of the monument
lurks the larger question of how much additional public land in
Utah should be designated wilderness. Some environmentalists fear
the monument will be the extent of it for a long, long time. Others
say it strengthens their hand. Says Tempest Williams, "I view (the
monument) as a down payment."
One precedent for
such a view is Alaska. Following President Jimmy Carter's
designation of some 56 million acres of national monuments there in
1978, Alaska's congressional delegation began holding serious talks
with industry leaders and environmentalists about which lands
warranted protection and which could be exploited for resources.
The result: the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, the largest and perhaps most
remarkable piece of public-lands legislation in the last century.
Optimists might also take heart from a marquee
outside a roadside business in Kanab. Clinton is clearly a villain,
but the monument could be something locals warm to. "Shame on you
Clinton," read the sign. Then below: "Buses welcome."
Paul Larmer is HCN's
associate editor. HCN's assistant editor Elizabeth Manning
contributed to this story.