Thursday, July 14, 2016

How a Utah designation transformed politics in the West

by Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

    The ceremony marked a pivotal moment for the Bureau of Land Management, for the conservation of the American West and possibly for President Clinton's re-election.
    Sitting at a desk on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the president unilaterally protected 1.7 million acres of southern Utah desert, lands so rugged, remote and forbidding that they were the last to be mapped in the Lower 48.
    Clinton's proclamation on Sept. 18, 1996, described the newly established Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, with its multihued cliffs, zebra-striped slot canyons and soaring sandstone arches, in striking prose:
    "It is a place where one can see how nature shapes human endeavors in the American West, where distance and aridity have been pitted against our dreams and courage."
    Nearly 20 years later, Clinton's surprise proclamation continues to shape the politics of public lands from county commissions to the halls of Congress, infuriating many critics. And it's made an indelible mark on BLM, the agency that manages it.
    In the history of the 1906 Antiquities Act -- the law that gives presidents unfettered power to create monuments banning drilling, mining and road building -- Clinton's designation was an exhibit in extremes.
    Grand Staircase-Escalante remains the largest land-based national monument to be designated. It is 53 times larger than neighboring Bryce Canyon National Park and is bigger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
    It was also the first to be managed by BLM, a multiple-use agency whose oversight of roughly 250 million acres of the West had been largely dominated by extractive uses like oil and gas, mining, and grazing.
    Until then, the National Park Service, with its singular mission of preservation, and the Forest Service, with its lofty pines, jagged peaks and alpine lakes, had been the favored stewards of the nation's wilderness, parks, monuments and other scenic lands.
    Grand Staircase-Escalante forced the 50-year-old BLM -- long known as the "neglected stepchild" of the wilderness movement -- to reinvent itself.
    "It was functionally one of the very seminal moments in BLM's conservation evolution," said Ken Rait, director of U.S. public lands for the Pew Charitable Trusts, who was with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in 1996. "I think we're still living that evolution today."
    Before leaving office, Clinton would designate 13 more BLM monuments covering 3.5 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon and Montana. They laid the foundation for then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to establish within BLM a National Landscape Conservation System, a new division "to conserve, protect and restore special areas and unique resources."
    BLM's NLCS -- now known as the National Conservation Lands -- today contains 32 million acres of national monuments, conservation areas, wilderness, wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, and other protected sites, and has its own assistant director and budget.
    Yet for many in the West, and particularly the Beehive State, Grand Staircase-Escalante remains a symbol of federal power run amok. Carried out in near-total secrecy, Clinton's designation sowed distrust and resentment among state officials. Critics blasted Clinton for locking up a massive coal deposit and turning the region into a vast playground for Easterners.
    "Our founding fathers feared special interests taking away freedom, but today we have another problem," House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) wrote in an op-ed last month in the Boston Herald. "One man in the Oval Office can lock up land and water from the entire nation with the stroke of a pen. This isn't the original intent of the Antiquities Act."
    Clinton's designation -- the first by a president in roughly two decades -- rekindled Republican efforts to reform the Antiquities Act, a push that continues to this day.
     With the political wounds still fresh, Grand Staircase-Escalante is also shaping today's debate in southeast Utah over a proposal by American Indians and conservationists for President Obama to designate a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. Administration officials will converge on Utah this Saturday to discuss future management of the Bears Ears area.

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