Three years ago, Jerry Meredith was pretty sure he had landed one of the toughest jobs in the federal government. The 51-year-old middle manager for the Bureau of Land Management had just been tagged to oversee the brand-new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.
moment it was breathed into existence by President Clinton in the
fall of 1996, the monument had been a lightning rod for rural
Western anger against the federal government. The designation by
executive order killed plans for a proposed coal mine on the rugged
Kaiparowits Plateau, which local communities had been banking on
for decades. It also came seemingly out of the blue: None of Utah's
public officials or the residents of the small towns surrounding
the 1.7 millon acre monument were forewarned of the president's
decision, and they responded with angry protests and vows to get
even in the courts (HCN, 9/30/96).
On the other
hand, many conservationists were skeptical that Meredith's agency,
the BLM - derisively called the "Bureau of Livestock and Mining" by
some - was capable of managing a national monument, a task
traditionally handed to the National Park Service. Throw on top of
that a rigid deadline - the presidential decree gave the Interior
Department three years to come up with a management plan - and
Meredith could see the makings of a failure.
first thought was, "No way, this can't be done," "''''recalls
Meredith. "I had no employees, no budget, not even an office."
But done it he has. Bolstered by a Clinton
administration intent on making the monument a model of success,
Meredith's team of 20 scientists and policy makers has finished a
management plan that will likely be signed by U.S. Secretary of the
Interior Bruce Babbitt by the end of the year, capping a remarkable
three years of on-the-ground conservation accomplishments in
Significant pockets of dissent
remain. Meredith's office has received nearly 100 letters
protesting portions of the new plan, and the monument is still
under a legal challenge from the Utah Association of Counties. But
Meredith says the BLM has weathered the storm quite nicely, and
shown that it can manage a world-class resource while still
accommodating local uses, such as cattle grazing and wood
As Bruce Babbitt zeroes in on
protecting other ecologically significant public lands in the West,
perhaps through further use of executive orders under the
Antiquities Act of 1906, the monument is being held up as the
model. The question: Is it a good one or a bad
A good model, would be the answer from
most environmentalists, though they see flaws in the new management
"We have some problems with the grazing and
ORV provisions, but the BLM did a pretty good job (with the
management plan)," says Heidi McIntosh, a lawyer with the Southern
Utah Wilderness Alliance, an organization that has often been at
odds with the BLM. "The agency took a fairly protective stance to
protect the primitive character of the land." The BLM's preferred
management option calls for 65 percent of the monument, or 1.2
million acres, to be protected as a primitive zone, with no visitor
facilities and extremely limited motorized
What development takes place will occur
in the communities surrounding the monument, an approach that has
drawn muted praise from local leaders. Next year bulldozers will
begin clearing land for visitor centers in Big Water, Glendale and
Cannonville. And Kanab is close to securing a contract for
constructing the monument headquarters building, which it plans to
lease back to the federal government, as part of a large, centrally
located "city heritage plaza."
"The community is
excited about this," says Kanab mayor Karen Alvey. "It will help
make us a destination point for visitors and give them a reason to
stay for two or three days instead of just passing through."
The headquarters will also bring a sizeable
payroll - as many as 35 federal employees will work out of
"The creation of the monument is still a
real sore subject around here," says Alvey. "But we're trying to
make lemonade out of lemons."
Meredith says his
agency has won the support of both locals and Salt Lake City
environmentalists. "We've gone out of our way to listen to people
and be accessible through this process, and we're proud of what
we've come up with," he says. "How many federal planning projects
do you know that come in on time and under budget?"
Big bucks smooth the
It helps, of course, if you have a
sizeable budget and firm backing from your bosses. From the start,
the monument planning effort has been a first-class operation.
Meredith was able to draw on the best talent throughout the nation
to create his planning "dream team," choosing from other federal
and state agencies. In a concession to Utah, the Clinton
administration let Gov. Mike Leavitt appoint five members to the
"When you call the planning team, things
actually get done," says Joro Walker, a lawyer who, on behalf of
environmental groups, has protested sections of the monument plan
dealing with grazing and ORV use. "That's definitely unique."
"They have included local communities to a very
large extent," echoes Mike Jenel, a planning consultant working for
Meredith doesn't deny that a quality
staff and plenty of money have been important to the completion of
the management plan, but he says the monument's budget is not
extravagant. It ran just under $2 million in 1998, he says, nearly
half a million below what Congress
Does the BLM have the resources to
manage the other significant sites in the West being eyed by
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt? Meredith says the agency has
already invested heavily in places like the California Desert and
the Columbia River Basin and could probably put together competent
planning teams at a reasonable cost in other
"We have a tradition of frugality," he
says. "But we are willing to put out resources where it is
The Clinton administration's investment in
the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has gone well
beyond planning monies, however. This fall it closed a deal buying
out leases held by Andalex, the coal company that wanted to develop
a mine on the Kaiparowits plateau. If Congress approves the
expenditure, U.S. taxpayers will pay Andalex $14 million in cash in
exchange for 34,499 acres of federal coal leases in the
Then there was the matter of the
177,000 acres of state-owned school trust lands scattered
throughout the monument. Utah politicians had claimed the monument
would make it tough to access and develop mining claims on the
state lands. By law they are supposed to generate revenues for
public schools. But last year the Interior Department and the state
of Utah sat down and hammered out an agreement that gives Utah $50
million and 139,000 acres of federal land in exchange for scattered
state-owned school trust lands throughout the state, including
those in the monument (HCN, 9/1/97).
story here is what an agency like the BLM can accomplish when it is
given adequate resources," says Bill Hedden, Utah representative
for the Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation group based in
Flagstaff, Ariz. "This monument is now becoming a full-fledged
monument, irrespective of which agency is managing it."
Hedden has had a hand in the monument's
maturation. Over the past year he has worked out deals with several
ranchers and the BLM to move cattle out of the monument and
permanently retire federal grazing allotments in environmentally
sensitive areas (HCN, 2/1/99).
The creation of
the monument was the catalyst for the ranchers, Hedden says. The
ranchers believed there would be more scrutiny of their activities
by the agency and the public, and that they would eventually be
regulated out of business.
"Combine that with the
collapse of the beef market and you can see why they think this is
the time to sell out," he
Heavy hand or guiding
Of course, not everyone is happy. The Utah
Association of Counties still has a lawsuit in federal court
challenging the legality of the monument itself. It claims the
president exceeded his authority under the Antiquities
Most observers say the lawsuit is a
longshot, but the possibility of a court victory has kept
Last summer, Kane County
commissioners were on the verge of signing an agreement with the
BLM that would finally resolve the contentious issue of which roads
the county owns within the new monument. Under heavy pressure from
the local chapter of People for the USA, a national "wise use"
organization, the commissioners backed off.
dissent is proof that many local citizens still haven't bought into
the monument, says Ken Sizemore, deputy director of the Five
Counties Association of Government in southern Utah. Sizemore, who
until last summer was the community leader for the monument
planning team, appointed by Gov. Leavitt, says he sees a
"groundswell" of opposition to the monument bubbling up as the
management plan nears completion.
elected officials were conversant in the planning process and
bought into it, the general citizenry was still very upset," says
The persistent political opposition to
the monument has convinced Bruce Babbitt to take a new tack.
Babbitt has said that places such as the Arizona Strip, north of
the Grand Canyon, and Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon,
deserve protection. Let the locals come up with a protection plan.
If they don't, he adds, he'll ask the administration to unleash the
Sizemore says the new approach
is as draconian as the old one. "The administration is making the
same mistake with these new areas," he says. "Sure, it would be
great to have a local, legislative proposal drive the process, but
when you get down to brass tacks, the administration opposes the
concepts and precepts embodied in locally produced legislation."
Monument manager Meredith says some locals will
always be unhappy because "there is a general dislike in the rural
West for anything that's perceived to limit the ability to make
money from natural resource development." Sometimes direction from
on high is not a bad thing, he says, especially when there is
little prospect of consensus at the local
"The president's proclamation for the
monument clearly defines what we can and cannot do," says Meredith.
"And that has been helpful."
Paul Larmer is senior editor
for High Country News.
* Jerry Meredith, manager of the
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, 435/865-5100, or check
out the monument Web site at
* Ken Sizemore at the
Five Counties Association at 435/673-3548.