Southern Utah residents may have to get used to the fact that the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is here to stay.

A federal judge on Monday ruled that former President Bill Clinton had the authority under the Antiquities Act to designate a monument in southern Utah in 1996.

"When the president is given such a broad grant of discretion as in the Antiquities Act, the courts have no authority to determine whether the president abused his discretion," U.S. District Judge Dee Benson wrote in a 47-page ruling.

Monument opponents, including counties affected by the monument's creation, were unsure if they would appeal Benson's ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

"It's tough to overturn a federal judge," said Garfield County Commissioner Dell LeFever.

LeFever said Benson's ruling is "a big disappointment. At least we were hoping to draw back the boundaries, but now it just is a land grab."

In 1997, a year after Clinton designated the monument in Garfield and Kane counties, the Utah Association of Counties and the Mountain States Legal Foundation sued. They argued that the designation was to block an imminent coal mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau and curry favor with environmentalists.

In his ruling, Benson said the court can't "second-guess" the president's motive, but it can determine whether he acted within the law.

"It is evident from the language of the proclamation that that president exercised the discretion lawfully delegated to him by Congress under the Antiquities Act," Benson's ruling says.

The ruling caught many people by surprise.

"We're obviously still reviewing it, but we're very pleased with the outcome of the decision," said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said the ruling puts another nail in the coffin of lawsuits challenging the president's authority to designate national monuments.

"Monument challenges are batting zero. No court has ever overturned a monument," said Heidi McIntosh, conservation director of SUWA.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 has been used by most presidents since Theodore Roosevelt, who first used it to create Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming.

Clinton later designated other national monuments around the country, and several of them were challenged in court. In every case, the courts upheld the president's right to designate national monuments.

Opponents argued Clinton used the monument designation to protect wilderness areas and that only Congress can designate wilderness.

Benson disagreed.

"Although a significant percentage of land in the Grand Staircase Monument may qualify as wilderness under the Wilderness Act, the president did not designate wilderness; he designated a national monument," Benson said in his ruling.

Mark Walsh of the Utah Association of Counties is puzzled by the decision because Benson refused to dismiss the case back in 1999.

"The first time he ruled he said the president had overstepped his authority. So we have two rulings out of this judge that take a 180-degree turn, so it's a little surprising," Walsh said.

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"It's clear the monument was a blatant political creation by Clinton that certainly circumvented the intent of the law and purposefully denied Utahns any input into its formation," Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said.

Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah's sole Democratic congressman, whose district includes Garfield and Kane counties, said whether or not people like the way it was designated a monument, it is time to move on.

"I've always said I didn't like the process by which the monument was created. I think public decisions ought to be made with a more inclusive process than just one individual using the stroke of a pen," he said.


Contributing: Angie Welling; E-mail: donna@desnews.com; lisa@desnews.com

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