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Know the West

Murmurs about a new monument

  The 3 million-acre swath of Bureau of Land Management land between the Grand Canyon and the Utah border, unromantically known as the Arizona Strip, is getting more visitors than usual these days.

In late November, Bruce Babbitt toured the area and suggested that nearly 400,000 acres of the wide-open desert lands are worthy of stronger federal protection - possibly national monument status.

"There really is nowhere I know of - in the lower 48 states - where you have this great, intact expanse that is not all chopped up," said Babbitt at the end of his trip.

The Arizona Strip is largely uninhabited, but it is home to cattle ranches, old uranium and copper mine sites, and a growing network of off-highway vehicle trails.

It's also close to fast-growing St. George, Utah, and Mesquite, Nev., and development pressures on the edges of the area are increasing, says Roger Taylor, the Bureau of Land Management district manager for the Arizona Strip.

"It ... (is) the most pristine rim area in the entire Grand Canyon system," said Babbitt. "Some people might say then, "Why bother?" ... If you don't think about it before the problems are on you, then you have controversy."

The Department of Interior is trying to avoid a replay of the political backlash following the establishment of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah in late 1996, says agency spokesman Larry Finfer.

"In order to pursue something like this, you have to have some consensus and support," he says. The Arizona congressional delegation has not taken a public position, but members are participating in discussions about the idea.

"There are some ideas in the works, and that's about it," says Finfer, who adds that it may be a month or two before more details are released. "All that's been established is that this area is special and deserves significant protection."

*Michelle Nijhuis