Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

The Bipolar State of Utah and National Monument Designation

The Obama administration is seriously considering establishing the proposed Bears Ears National Monument (BENM) in southeastern Utah. Ideally it will be the 1.9-million-acre proposal offered by twenty-six Native American tribes and a plethora of conservation organizations.

Threats to the area include uranium mining, potash mining, oil and gas development (including the most egregious tar sands kind), off-road vehicles, and cultural resource looting. The BENM would protect more than a hundred thousand archeological sites as well as eighteen Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas and Forest Service inventoried roadless areas. The monument would abut the eastern and southern boundaries of Canyonlands National Park and also abut and even include a portion of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, surround Natural Bridges National Monument, and include the southern unit of the Manti–La Sal National Forest.

Utah Congressional Delegation and Legislature Hate Federal Public Lands; Utahns Love Public Lands

The proposed BENM has overwhelming public support (71 percent of Utahns support designation of the national monument), but you wouldn’t know it by the howls of opposition from the state’s governor, legislature, and congressional delegation. Governor Gary Herbert (R) has decried the BENM proposal as a “political tomahawk,” which comes across to me as at least a tad racist. Nonetheless, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has done the obligatory field visit and listening session in preparation for a probable presidential proclamation.

In an attempt to head off the BENM and other real conservation initiatives for Utah’s federal public lands, Reps. Rob Bishop (R-UT-1) and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-3) have introduced their horrible Utah Public Lands Initiative (H.R.5780). Among its multiple mortal sins, it would exempt federal public lands in Utah from application of the Antiquities Act of 1906.

The Nature Conservancy says the bill has “serious limitations.” The Wilderness Society also opposes the bill. While opposition to the bill by these two—among the most get-along national conservation organizations working on federal public lands—is muted, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) pulls no punches. In its inimitable way, SUWA calls the Bishop bill “without question the worst ‘wilderness bill’” ever introduced in Congress. The Bishop bill would designate some “wilderness” with lots of de-wilding loopholes, give special names to certain areas that would more change the color on the map than management on the ground, and give away federal public lands, among many other crimes against nature.

To punctuate its opposition to the BENM, the Utah Legislature overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing any new national monuments in the state unless they are approved by the legislature and the governor.

Utah Congressional Delegation, Governor and Legislature Loves Federal Public Lands

The same Utah Legislature earlier appropriated $1.7 million to keep Utah’s national parks, monuments, and recreation areas, administered by the National Park Service, open during the federal government shutdown in October 2013. The legislature said the two-week shutdown cost gateway communities $17 million in NPS-related visitor spending. Utah actually only had to fork over just short of $1 million, which was estimated to have boosted local spending by nearly $10 million that would otherwise not have occurred.

At the time, Governor Herbert said, “Utahns understand very clearly how important our national parks are to our state economy, particularly in rural Utah. The report released by the Department of the Interior shows what we have understood all along: We made the right decision to reopen our parks during the federal government shutdown.”

Utah (along with Arizona, Tennessee, South Dakota, New York, and Colorado, which also quickly funded the NPS during the shutdown) would like its money back and Congress will likely reimburse them, though it kind of plays hell with the concept of a government shutdown, where the government is actually supposed to shut down and its citizens to feel the costs (or benefits, depending upon your point of view) of such a drastic action.

Utah Legislature and Governor Hate Federal Public Lands

This is the same State of Utah that actively seeks to have the United States give most all federal public lands within the state to the State (which would then likely soon sell to private interests). (See my blog entry of September 9, 2016 entitled “Statehood and Federal Public Lands: A Deal is a Deal.”

Where Utah’s National Parks Came From

It’s worth summarizing how Utah’s beloved national parks came into being. The general trend is that they were first national monuments proclaimed by far-away presidents, almost always over the opposition of the State of Utah (see Table 1).

Bryce Canyon National Park. In 1919, the Utah Legislature petitioned Congress to preserve the area as a national monument. President Warren G. Harding did so in 1923. Congress doubled the size and upgraded it to a national park in 1928.

Zion National Park. In 1909, President William Howard Taft proclaimed the Mukuntuweap (interpreted as Paiute for “straight canyon”) National Monument. The locals didn’t like the name or the monument, but eventually came to love Zion National Park, which was established in 1919 after an expansion of the national monument by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918. President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed the Kolob Canyons section as a national monument in 1937, which was later added by Congress to the national park.

Arches National Park. The first director of the National Park Service, Stephen T. Mather, persuaded President Herbert Hoover to proclaim an Arches National Monument in 1929. FDR expanded it in 1938. President Dwight Eisenhower diminished the monument in 1960 (illegal, but he got away with it), and President Lyndon Johnson further expanded it in 1969 just as he was leaving office. In 1971, Congress upgraded the national monument to a national park.

Capitol Reef National Park. FDR first stepped up in 1937 to establish a Capitol Reef National Monument. Eisenhower made a small addition in 1958. LBJ went big with a large expansion in 1969. Congress established Capitol Reef National Park but reduced the acreage to 241,671 from the 255,156 acres that were proclaimed as national monuments. Today, further expansion by Congress has the national park at 291,904 acres.

Canyonlands National Park. An exception to the national-monument-proclamation(s)-first-then-Congress-eventually-does-a-national-park model is Canyonlands National Park. Superintendent Bates Wilson of nearby Arches National Monument agitated for a national park. Senator Frank Moss (D-UT) introduced legislation in 1962 that became law in 1964. The park was expanded to its current size of 337,598 acres in 1971 by further action of Congress.

Out-of-Sync Utah Politicians: This Too Shall Pass

In 1996, while running for re-election, President Bill Clinton stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon in the adjacent state of Arizona and proclaimed the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in the state of Utah to the north. Besides being excellent public policy, it was a political no-brainer for him in that the third-party candidate Ross Perot got more votes in Utah than did Clinton. George H. W. Bush overwhelmingly carried Garfield (>70 percent) and Kane (60+ percent) counties, the location of the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. This national monument still annoys the old guard—but old guards don’t last.

Most change comes through funerals. As the rabid opponents of national monuments shuffle off their mortal coils, the next generation will come to see the benefits of national parks. The history of public lands conservation in Utah is still being made.