My forthcoming book Good Water contains an open letter to former president Bill Clinton, thanking him for establishing the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in 1996. Clinton, whose policy interests hadn’t exactly been focused on western lands, used the 1906 Antiquities Act—as had other presidents from both parties—to preserve 1.9 million acres of scenic southern Utah. President Clinton did this just before the ’96 election, hoping to solidify his support among the greens. It’s one of the best things he ever did.
At the time there was a tremendous chatter of sky-is-falling rhetoric from elected officials in Utah. Clinton’s action was going to destroy the rural way of life, they shouted, and another thing, the whole process was flawed and, gasp, undemocratic. They were dead wrong about the first part but not entirely wrong about the second.
Angering a few folks in a very red state seemed an acceptable cost to Clinton, who was advised in the matter by Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, a native Arizonan. In fact, the monument designation ceremony was held on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, though only a small part of preserved land was in Arizona. This was rightly seen as a slap in the face to Utah’s staunchly anti-wilderness elected leaders.
Today if you take a drive from Panguitch to Torrey, Utah, you will see that rather than killing the rural economy, the national monument has created a tourism boom. In each town there are new restaurants and watering holes, motels and gift shops. Streets have been paved and old houses renovated. Once nearly dead, the area is now thriving.
In the last couple of months, it has become clear that President Obama is considering designating a new national monument in the Bears Ears/Cedar Mesa area of southeastern Utah. Obama might use the Antiquities Act to do it. He might not need to.
Unlike in 1996, there is significant support and interest for the idea. On the one hand, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition—a partnership of five tribes: Ute Mountain Ute, Uintah Ouray Ute, Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo—has delivered a proposal to the president to protect an additional 1.9 million acres in a new national monument. This proposal has also been backed by the National Congress of American Indians. Some of this land is considered sacred by the tribes. Some of it contains ancient archeological sites. For hardy visitors, it’s one of those turn-a-corner-see-another-ruin places. It should be protected.
On the other hand, Utah Republican representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz have been crafting a "grand bargain" land proposal together with county commissioners, energy companies, and traditional-use advocates. This proposal, which has not been completed, calls for establishing a national monument including Bears Ears/Cedar Mesa, expanding a couple of other national parks and monuments, perhaps setting aside other land as wilderness, and opening 365,000 acres to energy development. It is hoped that the Bishop/Chaffetz proposal will be completed soon and delivered to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. Some critics suggest that the delay has to do with the presidential election cycle; that “grand bargain” proponents are praying for a friendlier face in the White House.
I hope President Obama declares a national monument without the “wise-use” trappings. It would be good for his legacy and great for us and for our children.
Kevin Holdsworth is the author of Big Wonderful: Notes from Wyoming and Good Water. His work has appeared in numerous periodicals, including Cimarron Review, Post Road, Creative Nonfiction, and Denver University Law Review. In 2009 he was awarded the Wyoming Arts Council creative writing fellowship for fiction. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and son, Chris, in south-central and southern Utah.