Babbitt looks for support on his home turf

  • Babbitt's proposed Arizona Strip National Monument

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Matt Safford and Whit Bunting on Shivwits Plateau

    rent Israelsen/Salt Lake Tribune
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

The Shivwits Plateau wasn't on environmentalists' radar screen a year ago. Better known as the Arizona Strip, the Shivwits lies in the extreme northwestern corner of Arizona. Cut off from the rest of the state by the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, it is a region of sagebrush flats, pinon-juniper forests and deep canyons that only mule deer hunters and a handful of ranchers seemed to care about.

That changed last November, when Department of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt - a northern Arizona native - proposed greater federal protection for a 550,000-acre swath of federal lands bordering Grand Canyon National Park (HCN, 12/21/98). As he did at Steens Mountain, Babbitt vowed from the beginning that local people and their elected officials would have a say in the matter, but made it clear that he would be willing to push for national monument status if no consensus emerged.

Since then, he's attended two town hall meetings, in Flagstaff and Colorado City, Ariz., and has sought the support of area ranchers and government officials. Although he's emphasized that grazing and hunting will continue, local response to the plan remains largely negative.

"If Babbitt wanted to keep it pristine, then the best thing would be just to leave it alone," says Mohave County Supervisor Jim Zaborsky.

In August, two members of Arizona's congressional delegation responded to Babbitt's proposal with bills designed to head off a monument designation. Sen. Jon Kyl and Rep. Bob Stump, both Republicans, introduced separate bills that would create a Shivwits Plateau National Conservation Area. Stump's bill could bring paved roads into the area and requires a comprehensive mineral survey within two years. The proposal has the support of the Arizona Strip Regional Planning Task Force, a group of local officials from three counties in Utah and two in Arizona, the Kaibab Indian Reservation, and a variety of other interest groups. Mohave County Supervisor Carol Anderson, who chairs the task force, says Stump's proposal goes a long way toward soothing the worries of locals.

"We're all real concerned about the monument designation because of the effect it could have on the historical and cultural uses of the area," says Anderson. "The area is not at all prepared to handle an influx (of tourists)." She points out that the only access to the plateau is via 60 miles of dirt roads.

But in a congressional hearing in October, Babbitt slammed Stump's bill. "Several features of this legislation actually weaken protections in existing law," Babbitt said in his testimony.

Tom Robinson of the Grand Canyon Trust, a Flagstaff-based conservation group that is proposing a monument twice the size of Babbitt's proposal, calls the bill "not even fixable."

Sen. Kyl's bill is more compatible with Babbitt's vision, but it has attracted little attention and made almost no progress.

Locals remain suspicious of Babbitt's motives, and resent the attention their empty corner of the Southwest is suddenly receiving. Roger Taylor, the BLM field manager for the Arizona Strip, says that many in the area are "wondering why this is necessary." Taylor acknowledges that public interest and visitation to the Arizona Strip have increased slightly, but believes it's just a result of the rapid growth of nearby Las Vegas and St. George, Utah.

Robinson admits locals don't like all the talk of creating a new monument in their backyard. "I think they want this whole thing to go away," he says. "It's a tough call. It really is. I think there will be some short-term sacrifices - but in the long term there will be protection."

Tim Westby is a former HCN intern. He writes from Salt Lake City, Utah.