Arizona gets a new monument

 

ST. GEORGE, Utah - President Clinton stood on the chilly, wind-whipped South Rim of the Grand Canyon in mid-January and announced the creation of the million-acre Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in northwest Arizona.

The next day, southwest Utah's daily newspaper duly reported the announcement, but it shared front-page space with another story - one that sparked more local outrage and, eventually, many more letters to the editor. "WAL-MART PROPOSAL UPHELD," read the headline.

Instead of embracing the dozens of new jobs the store will create, upscale neighborhoods near the site of a proposed 180,000 square-foot Super Wal-Mart had organized an unsuccessful campaign to move the project away from their homes.

For once, residents of this quickly sprawling sunbelt community and President Clinton were on the same side: both were fighting desert development.

The new monument, which stretches across more than 1 million wild acres between St. George and the Grand Canyon, is far from being considered prime development land today. But with more than 500,000 new people expected to settle here by the year 2050, the future is anyone's guess. And that's before adding nearby Las Vegas and Mesquite, Nev., to the mix. Although most of the land is federally owned, BLM land is being traded into private hands at an increasing rate. Monument status promises to keep federal ownership intact.

"This is not about locking lands up," Clinton said in his address. "This is about freeing them up, from the pressures of development and the threat of sprawl, for all Americans for all time."

Local reaction to the new monument has been much quieter than the response to Clinton's designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument over three years ago (HCN, 9/30/96). This time, there were no local children releasing black balloons and no high school auditoriums filled with residents spouting anti-Clinton epithets. But many haven't entirely forgotten the bitterness of those earlier days.

A sense of apathy

There have been murmurings about whether a new monument is necessary. The area is populated by bighorn sheep, lizards, cougars, desert tortoises, pronghorn antelope, pinon-juniper, ponderosa pines, sagebrush - and about four people.

A handful of southwestern Utah families run cattle within the monument, spending their days in places such as Poverty Mountain, Salt House Draw, and Suicide Point. "While it's true that only two or three people actually live out there full time, there are at least a couple dozen families who depend on that land for their livelihood," says rancher Tony Heaton.

"But there's also a real sense of apathy among folks here," says Heaton, who is the owner of the only motel in the Grand Canyon-Parashant Monument. "They figure if (President Clinton) could lie under oath and get away with it and create the Grand Staircase and get away with it, there's not much anybody can do to stop him."

Heaton's frustration mirrors that of other ranching families. They see the new designation as a giant billboard that will draw thousands of new visitors each year and change the remote character of the area.

"I would have preferred wilderness designation because it would keep many of the people from going out into that rough and isolated country," says Heaton.

Jim McMahon, director of the Grand Canyon Trust's St. George office, recognizes that the Parashant area is likely to draw more visitors now. "But I try to take the long view," he says. "In 500, or 200, or maybe even fewer years, I think the new designation will prove to be the right thing."

Local author and historian Lyman Hafen criticizes the process of designating the new monument. "I have a lot of friends in the environmental community and some of them have told me that they really resent the "sinister" approach - especially in an effort to thwart wilderness designation - that conservative politicians take toward public land management," Hafen says. "But I guess when you're working on the other side of the aisle, it's considered noble, not sinister, to stretch a nearly 100-year-old act of Congress into the shape of a 1 million-acre national monument."

Hafen's opinion may not differ from that of the majority of Washington County residents, but few have openly expressed it. One reason for the more muted response is that President Clinton chose a kinder, gentler - though no less final - approach this time.

Instead of making a surprise announcement, Clinton hinted at these newest designations through Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as early as May 1999 (HCN, 11/22/99). And instead of dropping what some considered a political bombshell less than two months before an election, Clinton made his announcement (which included two other national monuments, Agua Fria in central Arizona and the California Coastal National Monument) more than 10 months before his lame-duck term ends.

Besides apathy, there may be an ever-so-slight feeling of optimism among some locals. "I'm sure that some ' are looking for ways to take advantage of the new monument," says Washington County's Economic Development Director Scott Hirschi, who strongly disagrees with the process used to declare the monument. "When such major things happen in people's life, I think most people try to concentrate on the positive," he says. "I don't have proof that that's what's happening, but I hope it is.

"The new monument," Hirschi continues, "is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places that I've been to in my life, and I'd hate to see anything change that." But, he adds, "I think the silent majority (in southwest Utah) is withholding judgment on whether the monument will end up being a good or bad thing."

Lin Alder is a freelance writer and photographer, and the program officer for the St. George office of the Grand Canyon Trust. He lives in Leeds, Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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