Op-Ed: When Trump guts two Utah national monuments next week, he’ll trigger a new conservation war
I wrote my first letter pleading for preservation of Utah’s Kaiparowits Plateau as a college student 45 years ago. When President Clinton proclaimed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, he ended a 30-year debate about whether we should strip-mine coal on the Kaiparowits, a vast and remote wildland offering rich resources for scientific research. I thought the plateau, one of three key landscapes protected by the monument, was safe.
Turns out the monument’s canyons, plateaus and riversheds still need defending.
President Trump plans to head for Utah on Monday to wreak destruction on public lands he knows nothing about. He’s doing so at the behest of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, whose office says the president will follow Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s recommendation to reduce Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by half.
The attack on Bears Ears has been getting the most media coverage because it’s new — proclaimed by President Obama in 2016 in response to a visionary proposal from five Southwestern tribes, our first national monument dedicated to Native culture. Trump cares nothing for this bow of respect to the first Americans. He’s eager to join Hatch’s assault on Bears Ears so he can nullify one more Obama accomplishment.
Trump has no justification to gut this preserve other than to placate an angry and powerful Utah senator and the Utah congressional delegation.
Grand Staircase was as revolutionary in its way as Bears Ears. Rather than transferring jurisdiction of 1.9 million acres of public land to the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management retained authority even after the monument proclamation. This allowed for sport hunting, prohibited in national parks, and challenged the BLM to move beyond its reputation as the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining,” toward an emphasis on managing legacy lands for recreation and habitat conservation.
Grand Staircase-Escalante came first. Twenty-six BLM national monuments in ten Western states followed, the foundation for the bureau’s National Landscape Conservation System, codified by Congress in 2009 to “conserve, protect and restore these nationally significant landscapes that have outstanding cultural, ecological, and scientific values.”
Since designation, Grand Staircase has become a paleontology hot spot, the only place in North America where we can study in detail the causes of dinosaur extinction. New dinosaur species turn up there regularly — and paleontologists have surveyed only 6% of the monument. Thousands of fossils come from the Kaiparowits, the very place the Utah delegation imagines transforming from national monument to coal mine.
Our “science monument” also turns out to be good for local business. Hunting, fishing and existing mining claims continue; 95% of the monument is grazed by livestock just as it was before monument designation. Gateway communities such as Kanab, Escalante and Boulder have seen increases in population, jobs, personal income and per capita income that mirror other Western counties with protected lands.
Trump has no justification to gut this preserve other than to placate an angry and powerful Utah senator and the Utah congressional delegation — all of whom oppose public ownership of Western lands. Indeed, the White House informally referred to the executive order that empowered Zinke to shrink the monuments as the “Hatch E.O.”
The senator and his cohorts defer to Utah’s rural county commissioners, whose resentment of federal management of nearby public lands blinds them to any monument benefits. Their outsize power is shocking. Kane and Garfield, the two counties that make up Grand Staircase, number just 7,334 and 5,009 residents, respectively.
Geographic proximity leads many of the locals to believe they own these public lands. They do not. Their rallying cry to “take back” the monument rings hollow; public lands within Grand Staircase have never been state or locally owned.
Utah’s politicians do have one legitimate gripe: Clinton didn’t consult them before proclaiming Grand Staircase a national monument.
Federal officials learned their lesson. The designation process for virtually every new monument since — including Bears Ears — has incorporated multiple public hearings and broad local input.
In 1998, Congress effectively recognized the legality of Grand Staircase-Escalante with legislation that clarified Clinton’s proclamation. The state gave up its land within the monument and acquired BLM land (often developable or valuable for fossil fuels) elsewhere in Utah along with $50 million in cash. Congress approved minor boundary adjustments and a $14-million federal buyout of the Andalex Corp.’s coal leases on the Kaiparowits.
Hatch, Zinke and the rest ignore this history. They ignore science. They ignore the impossibility of mining coal profitably on the remote Kaiparowits. They ignore the 2.8 million citizens who told Zinke last summer to leave our monuments intact. They ignore the monument’s 900,000 annual visitors, stunned by sculptured slickrock and bedazzled by the Milky Way alight in the darkest of night skies. The senator and the secretary cater only to a stubborn handful of rural Utahns.
The administration’s attack on national monuments has fired up a national coalition of public lands and Native American rights defenders. If Trump carries through with this political favor to Hatch, he will disrupt management on the ground and trigger a years-long taxpayer funded court battle the anti-monument folks will likely lose. Legal scholars favor Clinton, Obama and nearly every other president since Teddy Roosevelt who have wielded their executive authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to proclaim national monuments, not to eviscerate them.
Those who dream of more mining, more roads fragmenting wild country and more local control on Utah’s public lands will instead endanger both the resources of our national treasures and the economic stability of southern Utah’s families and communities.
Stephen Trimble serves on the board of Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, the “friends” organization for the monument. His most recent book is “Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands.”
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