President Bill Clinton’s decision in 1996 to create the sprawling Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah was so incredibly controversial that he couldn’t even set foot in the state to make the announcement, instead holding a photo-op at the Grand Canyon in neighboring Arizona.
Now, two decades later, the Trump administration is considering paring down the expansive site in what environmentalists, Western land advocates, and energy industry leaders agree is a key test of the century-old Antiquities Act, the 1906 law that gives presidents the authority to create monuments.
“You can’t overstate how outraged the people in Utah and across the West were by this action. It’s a wound that has not healed. They haven’t gotten over it,” said William Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, an organization that led a yearslong legal fight against the creation of the monument that finally ceased after it became clear the George W. Bush administration would not reverse Mr. Clinton’s move.
There’s no greater example of the controversy associated with Grand Staircase, Mr. Pendley and others say, than the fact Mr. Clinton, then-Vice President Al Gore and environmental activists such as actor Robert Redford chose to hold a signing ceremony in Arizona rather than in Utah. The very creation of the monument, critics say, was much more about shutting off the vast supply of coal that sits beneath the monument than it was about creating a new national treasure.
Utah officials knew that at the time, and the Clinton White House made the shrewd political decision to avoid the state entirely when making the designation rather than risk embarrassing mass protests.
“Clinton was lying to Utah officials right up until the eleventh hour when he designated that monument,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.
Longstanding rumors are that Mr. Redford and other environmentalists were told of the decision to create the monument even before Utah officials, including then-Gov. Mike Leavitt, a Republican.
“As the governor, I had not seen a map. I had not read the proclamation or, for that matter, was I even invited,” he later testified to Congress. “This isn’t about courtesy, it is about process. It is about public trust. A major land decision, perhaps the biggest land decision that has been made or will be made in the next two decades, had occurred. Obviously, this is not the way public land decisions should or were ever intended to be made.”
Mr. Leavitt could not be reached for comment. Bruce Babbitt, Mr. Clinton’s interior secretary at the time, did not respond to requests for comment.
It’s unclear what Mr. Zinke will do with respect to Grand Staircase, though a decision is expected as soon as Thursday. It’s possible he could recommend no changes, suggest redrawing the monument’s boundaries or even call for a full revocation, though the latter would be an uphill legal battle.
With a decision imminent, both sides are making their last-ditch cases. Opponents of the monument point out that federal data show that roughly 40 percent of the land sits atop recoverable energy reserves, potentially providing millions of dollars in royalty payments and hundreds of jobs for local Utah economies. A Utah Geological Survey report, heavily promoted by the GOP-led House Natural Resources Committee, found that the total value of energy mineral resources on the land is somewhere between $223 billion and $330 billion, with the vast majority of that coming from coal reserves.
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