WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration says that its 1996 creation of Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument wasn't really secretive.
"This was not done in secret. For the last several weeks leading up to the proclamation, there was an actual vigorous debate involving the Utah delegation, the governor of Utah and many people," Interior Department solicitor John Leshy said Thursday at a congressional hearing.That flabbergasted Reps. Jim Hansen and Chris Cannon, R-Utah.
Cannon retorted, "I congratulate you for keeping a straight face while you said that."
The debate came over a bill sponsored by Hansen that would require more public hearings and studies before a president can create a monument.
Hansen quoted White House documents, which he obtained by subpoena, that ordered secrecy. He also went through a chronology showing Utahns didn't hear rumors about the monument until a Washington Post story 11 days in advance -- and the White House said for days thereafter that any monument was years away from creation.
In fact, Hansen said the White House only finally confirmed solid plans to Utah officials for the monument "at 2 a.m. on the day that the monument was created."
But Leshy insisted that the president received plenty of public input on the matter, so Hansen's bill is simply not needed.
"This legislation seeks to fix a problem that does not exist," Leshy told the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Land, which Hansen chairs. But Leshy couldn't pinpoint exactly how much time and input Utah officials had before the monument was created.
First, he indicated Utah officials knew about monument plans in mid-August of 1996 -- about a month before the monument was created.
After howls by Cannon and Hansen, Leshy revised that to "days and days" before, and said he had personally attended a meeting with Utah members of Congress and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to discuss details "about 10 days before."
News accounts back up Cannon's and Hansen's recollection that the meeting actually occurred only five days before the declaration. And they said Utahns raised concerns there but Interior officials would not verify what was planned and merely kept saying the president had not decided what to do.
Still, Leshy said the president received the information he needed about local concerns so that he could adequately address them in his proclamation.
"That confrontation process, while brief, worked," Leshy said.
Besides, he said, what to do with that area was an old issue. "This area of southern Utah has been outwardly debated in terms of how to be managed more than any other area that I know of for the last 25 years."
Hansen said White House documents his committee obtained and released last year clearly show the White House had ordered secrecy so that the Utah delegation would not spoil what he said was an election-year gimmick to please environmentalists.
Hansen and Leshy also disputed when the Interior Department began work on the monument.
Hansen quoted documents -- some from Leshy -- indicating it was working on a Utah monument in August 1995. Leshy says it didn't begin until July of 1996.
The difference is a key point because if it began at the earlier date, the Interior Department would have been required by law to conduct an environmental impact statement on the monument because the agency, not the president, was initiating consideration.
Hansen complained the president never did sign a request for such work to begin until a proclamation had already been drafted. Leshy said the president had made an earlier request verbally.
Hansen is pushing a bill that would create a long process of hearings and study before a president could declare a monument.
It would allow a president to protect an area for two years while an environmental impact statement is prepared; a six-month comment period would be allowed on the draft; a four-month comment period would be allowed on the final draft; and a 30-day waiting period would have to pass before a final proclamation is issued.
"We're talking about public comment here. There wasn't any" with Grand Staircase-Escalante, Hansen said.
But Leshy said Clinton will veto the bill. He complained that the temporary two-year period of protection may not be long enough to complete the public comment process.
Leshy also said Congress can remove any monument it dislikes. "If a president does something truly bone-headed, Congress can correct it -- no harm, no foul." He said that is enough of a check on a president.
But Cannon said in reality, because of a president's veto power, two-thirds of Congress would be needed to reject a monument -- and that's nearly impossible because normally at least a third of Congress "is so tied to a president that it will do whatever he wants."