Monumental opposition to a monumental proposal?


Obama’s second term has not yet begun and already folks are heaping on environmental demands – things that may have been politically untenable for the centrist president to do in the long run-up to a tough election where the economy and energy policy hogged the spotlight.

Last month, the Outdoor Industries Association – a trade group representing a passel of different recreation industries, many of whose products depend on public lands’ good condition – sent a letter endorsed by over 100 businesses asking Obama to invoke the Antiquities Act and designate 1.4 million acres around Utah’s Canyonlands National Park as the Greater Canyonlands National Monument. (Find a copy of the petition at the bottom of this article.)

The move is a direct response to Utah’s determination to wrest control of federal lands from the feds (see HCN’s cover story on the OIA’s and Black Diamond CEO Peter Metcalf’s conservation efforts for details). It also dovetails with conservationists’ attempt to get around Congressional deadlock on designating any new wilderness (the 112th is on track to be the only Congress since 1966 to not designate a single acre) by calling on the president to protect land with monuments instead.

The border of the proposed monument encompasses not only the national park, but also Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Labyrinth Canyon – a popular boating destination on the Green River, Indian Creek—a popular trad climbing and off-roading area, and the Dirty Devil River, among other treasured spots. The monument designation would confer many of the same protections as national park status, reports the Salt Lake Tribune, heading off threats identified by the letter’s signatory recreationistas – dozens of them based in Utah -- including that many of these scenic and undeveloped places are “inappropriately open” to drilling and mining and that current federal plans “fail to address exploding off-road vehicle use that is damaging riparian areas, cultural sites, soils and solitude.”

The industry was also quick to point out that, according to the Western Governors Association, outdoor recreation spending “in western states alone … equaled almost $256 billion (nearly 40% of the national total) and supported 2.3 million jobs.” Those points were underscored by a recent study from Headwaters Economics, which found that “Western non-metropolitan counties with more than 30 percent of the county’s land base in federal protected status such as national parks, monuments, wilderness, and other similar designations increased jobs by 345 percent over the last 40 years. By comparison, similar counties with no protected federal public lands increased employment by 83 percent.” It’s also worth noting that the OIA’s annual conference in Salt Lake City brings 46,000 people and $42.5 million each year.

“(The monument proposal) is about managing the area for recreation jobs. It’s all about how recreation and resource extraction interact, because the system tends to favor resource extraction,” Ashley Korenblat, the owner of Moab-based Western Spirit Cycling, told the Moab Sun.

This being Utah, of course, the loudest responses from conservative local governments and individuals, as well as the state’s Congressional delegation, have been strongly in opposition.  A group called The Sagebrush Coalition has begun holding meetings in Moab, started a petition drive and is encouraging its backers to boycott recreation businesses that support the proposal. Meanwhile, opposition has also begun to boil up on off-road forums (more of that here and here). And some motorized trade groups are rallying behind as well.

"We certainly hope we don't have another Bill Clinton approach to creating a monument," Utah Governor Gary Herbert said in a prepared statement, according to the Sun. Clinton invoked the Antiquities Act in 1996 on his way out of office to create the 1.9-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the southeastern part of the state, spurring a local uproar.

Interestingly, though, that sort of opposition to monument designation may not run quite so deep as you might think, despite Utah’s apparent anti-federal leanings. A poll last year conducted by the group formerly known as Republicans for Environmental Protection (now ConservAmerica) found that 69 percent of surveyed Utahns rated Grand Staircase-Escalante as "very good" or "somewhat good,” for Utah, reports the Salt Lake Tribune. Meanwhile, only 16 percent rated it "somewhat bad" or "very bad."

Sarah Gilman is HCN’s associate editor.

Image of crack climber at Utah's Indian Creek courtesy of Flickr user climbingcrystal

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