President Clinton officially set aside 1.7 million acres of Utah canyon lands Wednesday as a national monument, with some concessions to Utah authorities who complained the move would stunt the local economy and block a job-generating coal mine.
Standing against the sweeping backdrop of the Grand Canyon, Clinton declared that in creating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument “we are keeping faith with the future. . . . On this remarkable site, God’s handiwork is everywhere.”
But officials trod carefully around the issue of the planned coal mine, which was to be dug by Andalex Resources, a Dutch company, on a leased site on the Kaiparowits Plateau, considered one of the new monument’s most remote and valuable sites. Under current plans, 50% of the coal mined from the plateau would be exported from the Port of Los Angeles.
In his remarks, Clinton implied that he intended to block the mine, which some have said could produce high quality coal with a value of $1 trillion.
Clinton said he was “concerned” about the prospect of the mine. “We can’t have mines everywhere, and we shouldn’t have mines that threaten our national treasures,” he said.
Bruce Babbitt, secretary of the Interior, was more circumspect. Designating the land as a monument will begin a process in which the Bureau of Land Management will develop a management plan for the area. The mine would have to clear an exhaustive environmental impact assessment to gain clearance, Babbitt said.
Asked whether the mine was likely to be approved, “yes, no or maybe,” Babbitt said “The answer is all of the above.”
Wednesday’s action does not affect Andalex’s valid lease on the property, Babbitt said, but he added that federal officials hope to get the company to trade its claims for leases of equivalent value on other federal properties.
Andalex officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Within the administration, environmental policy advisors said that national monument status would very likely make operating the proposed mine impossible.
“A monument doesn’t affect the right to mine,” said one administration spokesman. “But it will set a very high environmental standard for the construction of roads, power lines and various industrial accouterments necessary to operate the mine.”
Clinton’s move, creating a protected area more than twice the size of Yosemite National Park, drew praise from environmentalists and opposition from officials in Utah.
The monument designation “will impact people’s jobs and the ability of their children to make a living in the area,” said Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt. According to state estimates, the proposed mine holds out the prospect of 1,000 jobs, $1 million in annual revenues for Kane County and $10 million a year in state and federal taxes.
There are also 200,000 acres of trust lands within the monument. According to Leavitt, if those lands can be mined or otherwise developed, they are potentially worth $2 billion or more in royalties to the state’s public school system.
In Kanab, the nearest Utah town to the proposed mine site, several hundred citizens greeted the announcement with a rally featuring black balloons and black armbands, county Commissioner Joe Judd said.
Yet, Judd said Clinton’s speech turned out to be “better than what we had expected.
“Water rights, hunting rights, grazing rights and our right to use roads on that land will be preserved,” he said.
In Escalante, a hamlet perched on the northern edge of the monument lands, sawmill owner Steven Steed called the president’s announcement “a real low blow. . . . People feel as if they have been shorted out of the process, as if they have no voice in the future of lands they have lived and worked on for at least 100 years.”
But the Sierra Club’s president, Adam Werbach, praised the move as “without a doubt President Clinton’s boldest environmental initiative.”
And Tim Mahoney, a political consultant to the League of Conservation Voters, called the decision “a bold stroke in a key, contentious area.”
Clinton’s announcement was made under a 1906 law that allows the president to designate national monuments without congressional approval. The move broke a stalemate in Congress between two bills--one that would have left the Kaiparowits Plateau open to mining and another that would have incorporated it in a 5.7-million-acre wilderness.
White House officials were quick to point out that other presidents were denounced when they designated national parks and monuments. A White House handout noted that a Arizona newspaper had complained of a “fiendish and diabolical scheme” when the Grand Canyon National Park was created earlier this century.
The formal designation came in an evocative ceremony that drew several hundred environmentalists, and in its fervor took on an almost religious quality.
As Clinton and Vice President Al Gore spoke, the overcast sky broke into a bright sunlight that seemed to set the purple canyons in the distance on fire.
Writer Terry Tempest Williamsdeclared that the lands “possess spiritual qualities that cannot be measured in economic terms.”
But Colorado Gov. Roy Romer acknowledged that the designation was bound to bring a lasting dispute. “There will be discussion about whether this was done in the right way,” he said.
Richter reported from the Grand Canyon and Clifford from Los Angeles.
President Clinton has designated 1.7 million acres of Utah canyon land as the country’s newest national monument.