1996: Clinton takes a 1.7 million-acre stand in Utah

A Bold Stroke: Clinton takes a 1.7 million-acre stand in Utah

  • Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

    Diane Sylvain
  • President at Grand Canyon Sept. 18, proclaims new nat'l monument

    Tom Brownold
  • Hikers in a canyon on western edge of new monument

    At Hartmann/Salt Lake Tribune

"God's handiwork is everywhere in the natural beauty of the Escalante Canyons and in the Kaiparowits Plateau, in the rock formations that show layer by layer the billions of years of geology, in the fossil record of dinosaurs and other prehistoric life, in the remains of ancient civilizations like the Anasazi Indians. "

"In protecting it, we live up to our obligation to preserve our natural heritage. We are saying simply, "Our parents and grandparents saved the Grand Canyon for us; today, we will save the grand Escalante Canyons and the Kaiparowits Plateau of Utah for our children." "

* President Bill Clinton, Sept. 18, 1996

Though the day starts cool and gray, by noon the sun breaks through the clouds, casting golden rays on some 2,000 people gathered on the south rim of Arizona's Grand Canyon. Environmentalists, Native Americans, government bureaucrats, politicians, scholars and even a few movie stars mingle in the warm September light, excitedly awaiting a pronouncement.

As the ceremony begins, a few Hopi elders rise and deliver a blessing: "This is a time of healing," they say. "The healing must begin."

Then, with a stroke of his pen, President Clinton signs a document establishing 1.7 million acres in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Thanks to the little-known Antiquities Act of 1906, which grants the president executive powers to designate new monuments, the declaration is final. No Congress, no mind-numbing or raucous public hearings, no mess: "Here Utah, have a monument."

The crowd roars its approval, but three men wearing black ribbons on their lapels stand quietly in the back. Perhaps the only time they smile during the ceremony is when the chopping of a helicopter interrupts Utah writer and wilderness advocate Terry Tempest Williams at the precise moment she asks the assembly to "listen to the silence." These three men from Kane County, the home of the new monument, are virtually the only Utah officials present, and they are mad as hell.

After all, the battle over wilderness has raged for more than a decade here. County commissioners sent bulldozers into proposed wilderness areas one Fourth of July, wilderness supporters have been hung in effigy and environmentalists have decided that compromise and consensus are dirty words. It remains to be seen whether the designated monument will heal Utah's environmental war, or prolong it.

Following the announcement at the Grand Canyon, solemn and angry locals in Kanab, Utah, 70 miles to the north, file into the high school gym for their own ceremony. To protest their loss of rights, they wear black arm bands and bear signs reading, "Shame on you Clinton" and "Why Clinton, Why? You're our President." And while environmentalists in Washington, D.C., release festively colored balloons on tethers, schoolchildren in Kanab free 50 black balloons to symbolically warn other states that the president could unilaterally lock away their lands, too.

For six years, Kanab, pop. 3,000, has eagerly awaited coal development by Andalex, a Dutch-owned company that would tap into a mother lode of coal - 62 billion tons according to a recent federal analysis - under the remote, grassy Kaiparowits Plateau. The 50-year project was to provide locals with hundreds of decent-paying jobs and billions of dollars in state and local taxes. Now, with one simple proclamation, Clinton had derailed the plan.

Utah's mostly Republican congressional delegation, which fought hard to keep the Kaiparowits open to mining, blasted Clinton for steamrolling Westerners. "This is the mother of all land grabs," said Sen. Orrin Hatch. "An outrageous, arrogant approach to public policy," echoed Sen. Bob Bennett.

Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, vowed to cripple the monument by stripping it of funds while state and county officials began crafting a legal challenge to the designation. The outrage wasn't confined to Utah. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, immediately introduced a bill to prevent the president from making a similar designation in his state without full public participation and congressional approval.

The monument will not be managed by the National Park Service, but by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which already administers the area and has long-standing relationships with local communities. Grazing, hunting and fishing will still be allowed (see accompanying story).

This helps some, but not a lot: "I'd like to see local people involved," said Kane County Commissioner Joe Judd. "I'd like to see taxes for school trust lands (in the monument), and I'd like to see 900 well-paying jobs. But I come across as un-American because the president says this land should be a national monument. Well, the reason this land is so beautiful is because we've been taking care of it for the last 150 years."

Before Clinton's announcement, but after rumors had been leaked to the national press, Judd flew back to Washington, D.C., to confront White House officials. "They said they knew nothing about it," he said. "Then the next day we find out it's a done deal and that it's been in the works for four months."

Even some environmentalists felt miffed by the administration's secretiveness. "All kinds of people I work with are angry about the process that didn't happen," said Bill Hedden, a Grand County council member who also works for Grand Canyon Trust, the environmental group that helped host the ceremony.

And while newspapers on either coast ran glowing editorials about the plan, most Utah papers - even the generally pro-environment Salt Lake Tribune - took positions decrying the lack of public participation, if not the plan itself.

From defense to offense

Behind the anger, some Utahns were searching their souls. How had control over public land management been so easily wrested from their hands? And would the new monument divide or unite the state in its future struggles over wilderness designation?

Less than a year ago, the state's political leaders seemed on the verge of resolving the struggle over Utah's unprotected wild lands once and for all. They passed legislation based on county recommendations that would have designated as wilderness approximately 1.8 million acres of land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (HCN, 12/25/95). The rest would have been thrown open to development, including large portions of the Kaiparowits Plateau.

Environmentalists complained bitterly about the delegation's bill - they were pushing for 5.7 million acres of BLM wilderness - and the process, which they said gave too much influence to rural counties and ignored pro-environmental sentiments in Utah's densely-populated Wasatch Front.

Led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, environmentalists nationalized the debate, calling on people across the country to stand up for Utah's magnificent wild lands, to pressure their members of Congress to defeat the Utah delegation's wilderness bill. It worked. Last December, opposition within the House of Representatives forced Hansen to pull his bill before a vote.

The defeat created a political vacuum, and into it stepped the Clinton administration. One anonymous White House official says administration staffers had been on the lookout for environmental victories they could achieve without congressional support. They'd considered making Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a monument, but decided that the president could use his veto powers to stop destructive oil drilling in the refuge, so they targeted Utah instead. A team from the Department of the Interior, including Interior Solicitor John Leshy, and some outsiders, was asked to work out the details.

Administration officials involved realized the designation was a stroke of political genius. It would resonate well with a public irritated at Republican efforts to roll back environmental laws and regulations; it would shore up the president's green credentials; and it wouldn't affect Clinton's prospects in Utah, where he had finished third behind Ross Perot in 1992. Some say Clinton also got swept away by enthusiasm after announcing a month earlier that the administration would halt a gold mine near Yellowstone National Park. "It's fun to be president; let's do some more of this," he reportedly told a nearby staffer at the park ceremony.

But it seems that even the administration was caught a little off-guard. Officials were still crafting the monument proposal when reporter Frank Clifford of the Los Angeles Times broke news of it. Then it appeared in the Washington Post, and the White House decided it could wait no longer.

Already, officials were inundated with pleas from both sides. Utah's delegation begged the president's staff to back off and let Utahns decide the fate of the wildest country left in the lower 48 states. They told Clinton that Utah's schoolchildren would suffer if Andalex couldn't develop and pay fees on 200,000 acres of school trust lands scattered throughout the proposed monument. Finally, they resorted to name-calling in the media: They said the president was a midnight land-grabber seeking to burnish his image just weeks before the November election. Some even charged that environmentalists cozy with the administration had crafted the proposal.

Utah environmentalists denied the allegation and said the Utah congressional delegation itself had set the stage for Clinton's decision.

"The stars were aligned," said an exultant Ken Rait of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "The backdrop was created by the arrogance of the Utah delegation which snubbed much of its constituency. It pushed a wilderness bill that tried to bring down the spirit and intent of the wilderness act, (and that) put Utah public lands on the national map."

Added the Grand Canyon Trust's Hedden: "The creation of the monument was a reaction to the fact that we are so polarized in this state that we can't communicate at all with each other. We have failed to come up with a solution on our own, so basically we took ourselves out of the debate."

What happens now?

Will Utahns hold a permanent grudge or will they sit down together to craft an agreeable management plan for the monument?

So far, cooperation seems unlikely. Kane County Commissioner Judd says his county will now back away from an expected agreement with state and federal agencies to reintroduce California condors to the area. "We're not going to sign it now," said Judd. "If one of those condors sits its butt in the monument, why, then, we've got an endangered species problem."

"We're going to be a whole lot less cooperative with the federal government," echoes Kane County's attorney Colin Winchester. "I know it's playground stuff - you know, my daddy's bigger than yours - but that's the way we feel now."

Others believe that the president's move will ultimately be seen as a watershed leading to more peaceful resolutions of public land issues. Writer Terry Tempest Williams says she believes many Utahns support the monument. "To hear what's going on in the papers, you'd think Utah is in a wake," she said. "But my family is Republican and they're absolutely thrilled. This is one important step toward a growing conservation ethic that we are seeing in Utah. I think things will calm down and the hard work will begin."

Pollsters at the Salt Lake Tribune are waiting for the anger to subside before trying to find out what Utahns really think. The Deseret News, however, released an early poll showing 49 percent opposed to the monument and 29 percent for it; 61 percent said the process used to create it was unfair.

Beyond the immediate question of the monument lurks the larger question of how much additional public land in Utah should be designated wilderness. Some environmentalists fear the monument will be the extent of it for a long, long time. Others say it strengthens their hand. Says Tempest Williams, "I view (the monument) as a down payment."

One precedent for such a view is Alaska. Following President Jimmy Carter's designation of some 56 million acres of national monuments there in 1978, Alaska's congressional delegation began holding serious talks with industry leaders and environmentalists about which lands warranted protection and which could be exploited for resources. The result: the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, the largest and perhaps most remarkable piece of public-lands legislation in the last century.

Optimists might also take heart from a marquee outside a roadside business in Kanab. Clinton is clearly a villain, but the monument could be something locals warm to. "Shame on you Clinton," read the sign. Then below: "Buses welcome."

Paul Larmer is HCN's associate editor. HCN's assistant editor Elizabeth Manning contributed to this story.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- The mother of all land grabs

- A daunting, beautiful place

- Managing the monument: The devil is in the details


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