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Grand Staircase

Born amid controversy 10 years ago, national monument is still being ‘discovered’

Ten years ago when then-President Bill Clinton created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Dennis Judd hoisted the U.S. flag upside down — an international sign of distress — in front of his Denny's Wigwam store in Kanab.

"We did it for a week in protest," Judd says.

Nearby, a hotel hung Clinton in effigy. Residents wearing black ribbons

staged a protest at the high school gym decorated with black balloons. They fumed that Clinton did not consult with them and issued his election-year proclamation to please environmentalists by killing potential coal mining within monument boundaries.

Now Judd is doing what he says would have been truly unimaginable a decade ago. He has become a board member of Partners of Grand Staircase-Escalante, a citizens group dedicated to helping the monument.

"I wanted to turn it around to where the monument would be beneficial for the local people," he says. The monument "still needs to be discovered, really."

He is an example of how many who were once angry are now learning to live with the vast monument that covers 4 percent of Utah.

But others are still upset, even a decade after Clinton created it on Sept. 18, 1996. They say it cost Utah billions of dollars from lost mining; cost hundreds of high-paying jobs; and cost schools millions from trust lands.

In short, the monument is still controversial. That's not surprising, since it was born and raised in controversy.

Political shenanigans

Utahns were stunned when Clinton established the monument by declaration with no prior consultation and after insisting for days that no such action was imminent.

The first public word that it was under consideration came just 11 days before its formation, when the Washington Post reported it. When Utah media and members of Congress called the White House, they were told the Post was mistaken, that the idea was in the earliest stages of consideration and years away from any action. That was a fib.

Clinton would say he created the monument because Andalex Corp. planned a large coal mine there. Environmental groups worried development would harm nearby areas under consideration for protection as formal wilderness.

They urged Clinton to use his power under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to declare the area a national monument and make it off-limits to mining. It was a novel approach for wilderness protection that even would be explored at length on an episode of the TV-series "The West Wing." Clinton later would use the Antiquities Act to create 15 more national monuments.

The election-year move may have helped Clinton politically. Environmentalists had complained he had not done enough for them. So some worried the Green Party in California might draw enough support away from Clinton to make him lose that key state. Forming the monument helped ensure that did not happen.

Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, who would be thrown out of office by Utahns upset that he could not block the monument formed by a president from his own party, says now that Clinton in reality had no real political need to create the monument.

"That was the farce of it all. They knew at the time that Clinton didn't have a problem with the election. He was so far ahead of Bob Dole that they knew he would easily win. They did not have to do what they did to win that election," Orton says.

Democrats never recovered the House seat he lost because of controversy over the monument.

What perhaps infuriated southern Utah residents the most is Clinton chose not to come to Utah to announce the monument — but did it instead from the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

The White House said he did that because no city in southern Utah had facilities necessary for TV crews — which surprised Kanab, where TV series such as "Gunsmoke" were shot for years.

The House Natural Resources Committee would later launch an investigation into formation of the monument, which found some interesting White House e-mails and memos.

They suggested the White House created a false paper trail to evade requirements for a public study process. Officials wrote instructions to keep plans secret, including lying if necessary, to ensure Utah politicians could not block the monument.

E-mails also showed that White House officials figured that planned coal mining in the area really posed no significant environmental threat. They also said the area was less deserving of protection than others, but the boundaries chosen would help subvert bills by Utah Republicans that would protect less wilderness than environmentalists sought.

"It was an illegal act done by a corrupt president, and he did it for political purposes only," says Garfield County Commissioner Clare Ramsay.

"No doubt, it was absolutely the wrong way to create a monument. It upset people for a long time and created an atmosphere of distrust," says Mike Satter, president of the Partners for Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Angry Republicans in Congress (and even Democrat Orton) introduced numerous bills to strip or restrict a president's power to create monuments — but all failed, as did some attempts to erase or shrink the monument.

Numerous lawsuits would also challenge its creation. The last of them was dismissed this summer. No others are planned, and the monument finally faces a future free of legal and political challenges.

Promises, promises

In the early morning hours of the day he created the monument, Clinton would make several promises to then-Gov. Mike Leavitt and Orton to minimize damage by it to Utahns.

"However, it didn't take them very long to start reneging on most of them," Orton says now. "Many of those deals were made with me. Maybe because I was soon no longer in office, the administration felt it didn't need to keep them."

Orton says some of those promises included "that they would not close any roads; that they wouldn't close any grazing rights; that they wouldn't foreclose any mining rights; that water rights would be maintained under state law."

Also, Clinton promised to give management of a monument for the first time ever to an agency besides the National Park Service: to the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM had long overseen the area, and Orton and local leaders thought it would be more likely to allow continued grazing, mining and open access.

"But I don't think there are many mines still operating there now; they started fighting on water rights; they started fighting to close roads. In short, all those issues we saw as problems are still problems," Orton says now.

Disagreeing is acting monument manager Marietta Eaton. She said while no new mining exploration or claims are allowed, old claims are still honored and some mining is ongoing. She said grazing is still allowed for old permittees (who can sell those rights to others). She said hunting is still allowed and controlled by the state.

Roads are an issue, with some residents worrying that the BLM has closed off too many. "We who are used to driving out in the wide open places are now driving down these roads, and it is like you are in prison. You have all these foreign stakes saying you can't go here, you can't go there," Judd says.

In some areas, signs by the BLM say roads are closed, while competing signs by local counties say they are open.

Last month, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance seeking to force the BLM to enforce closure of posted roads. It contended the BLM largely sat on the sidelines when local counties took bulldozers and graders onto roads supposedly closed to protect potential wilderness. The court ruled that since BLM did not want to protect its turf, SUWA had no standing in court to do so.

Mining shaft

The biggest issue, perhaps, is that the large Andalex coal mine never materialized, despite a promise by Clinton in his proclamation to honor existing mineral claims.

Andalex ended up agreeing to a $14 million buyout by the federal government of its claims on 34,499 acres in the monument. That was to cover the money it had spent on exploring those claims. The company would have faced difficult obstacles to gain access across the monument to transport the coal it wanted to extract.

Likewise, the federal government paid $5.5 million to buy out coal claims there owned by PacifiCorp.

"Those companies made a business decision to leave," Eaton says. She adds that no new claims are possible in the monument. "The only way that would change is if Congress alters our boundaries."

A 1997 study by the Utah Geological Survey estimated minerals in the monument are worth a staggering $223 billion to $330 billion. It said that includes up to $312 billion in coal; up to $17.5 billion in coal-bed gas; up to $1.1 billion in petroleum; and more than $4.5 billion in other minerals.

David E. Tabet, energy and mineral program manager for the Utah Geological

Survey, said many companies explored the possibility of working claims there, "but the difficulty of working in the monument usually drove them off."

Orton says he is confident coal could have been produced without harming the overall environment. "And now we are complaining about the greenhouse effect. But we locked up the highest BTU, low-sulfur coal in the world," and burning it would cause less pollution than other sources now used, he says.

Did schools lose?

Leavitt has said Clinton did not realize until the day the monument was created that Utah had 177,000 acres of school trust lands scattered in the monument, and the monument would kill off mineral royalties from developing them.

So Clinton promised to protect Utah schoolchildren from losses. "But I don't feel like we got fair market value for all of those lands," says Margaret Bird, school trust land specialist at the Utah Office of Education.

Congress approved a land swap in 1999 that gave Utah $50 million in cash plus 139,000 acres of other federal land. Bird, however, said estimates of the value of the land given up in Grand Staircase-Escalante were far greater than what was gained and could have produced a steady revenue stream for maybe hundreds of years.

Paula Plant, also a school trust land specialist with the Office of Education, said the state found some of the traded-for lands could not be developed because of issues with surrounding federal lands or proposed wilderness. "It was the same issue of having a valuable resource, but you can't develop it."

But some of the traded-for land is producing well, and Bird said natural gas production there is generating royalties of maybe $1 million a month for schools. She concedes also that production there likely occurred much faster than development in monument areas probably would have occurred.

Wilderness or park?

When the monument was formed, some worried that it might become a giant wilderness area. But some environmental groups worried that it would become too much like a traditional national park, with visitor centers and paved roads and trails, with too little true wilderness.

After 10 years, the monument is somewhere between those extremes, but maybe nearer to wilderness.

It actually has zero acres of formal wilderness area. "But we have 881,327 acres that are wilderness study areas (nearly half the monument). The rules protecting them are actually a little more stringent" than formal wilderness designations, Eaton says. No motorized vehicles are allowed there, and no development.

The monument has four visitors centers, all technically outside monument boundaries in Big Water, Kanab, Cannonville and Escalante.

"The monument is larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island put together. It is 1.9 million acres. But there are essentially no

paved roads" around most of it, says Satter, president of Partners of Grand Staircase-Escalante.

"It's not like a national park where you walk on paved trails and go on a nice 4-mile hike where there are water fountains along the way. It is wilderness. And when you are out there, you pretty much have to know how to take care of yourself," he says. Four-wheel drive vehicles are needed to see most of the monument.

Economic impacts

Monument visitation has varied over recent years but lately is trending down. Last year, it had 613,000 visitors. That was down from 650,000 in 2004 and from 696,000 in 2003. Visitation numbers include those who just drive through to other sites (such as traveling the highway between Kanab and Lake Powell).

The monument estimates that 90 percent of those visitors are in the "front country" along paved roads near monument borders.

Visitation at the monument's visitors centers is up in recent years. The total was 88,000 last year, compared to 69,000 in 2004 and 57,000 in 2003.

A study by the Institute for Outdoor Recreation and Tourism estimated that visitors to the monument spend about $88 million a year in southern Utah, helping the economy of the small communities surrounding the monument.

But Judd, who owned a store in Kanab for decades, questions how much benefit really comes specifically from the monument.

"I'm not seeing the tourists come in my store because of the monument. They're still coming because of Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell," Judd says.

Ted Hallisey, executive director of the Kane County Office of Tourism, said most tourists indeed come for those other parks, "but they fill in their time with other things along the way, like Lee's Ferry, Pipe Springs (both in Arizona) or Grand Staircase."

Ramsay, the Garfield County commissioner, said, "I have heard figures saying 60 percent of our economy is tourism related. But Bryce Canyon is the big draw here. But there are some who come here for that who go over to the monument."

He adds, "We still look at it (the monument) as a stab in the back. It cost a tremendous amount of income. Our economy has been severely damaged. What we have lost outweighs what little bit we have gained. We're living with it, but some of us still have a bitter taste in our mouths."

But Big Water Mayor Rick Parsons says the monument is helping some there. "It gives people a reason to stop," he said. He adds the town is having a growth spurt mainly from people who love the monument and nearby Lake Powell.

"They came out and loved it, so they decided to stay here," he said.


Some people still debate whether all of the vast area is worthy of national monument status.

Ramsay, for example, says, "If it had been done right, they would have gone to the red-rock country down the Escalante River and created that as a monument. It would have made sense, and there wouldn't have been such an uproar. But there's so much of it that isn't unique. It's the sagebrush and junipers that you can find anywhere."

Former Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, a longtime critic of the monument, says he remembers driving a car with federal license plates and being stopped by tourists inside the monument.

"They asked us, 'Where is Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument?' We said, 'You're standing in it.' They asked what there is to see. We said, 'You're looking at it.' Too much of it is just sagebrush," Hansen said.

Disagreeing again is acting monument manager Eaton. "It is beautiful here. If you are driving through southern Utah, you know around every corner it looks different — and that is one of the beauties of our region."

More important than being a site for tourists, she says, is that the monument "is a huge laboratory, and that's really our focus. That is the overriding importance of the monument, as an outdoor laboratory and a classroom."

She notes that more than 200 major scientific projects have occurred in the monument over the past 10 years.

For example, more than 300 different kinds of dinosaurs and other ancient creatures have been recorded since the monument was formed — including finding the world's largest oviraptor, a new species of tyrannosaur, the oldest known gila monster and two new species of triceratops-like horned dinosaurs.

Also, the monument has seen numerous archaeological projects documenting ancient Anasazi and Fremont Indian sites. Interestingly, rock art and bones found in digs were used to show that antelope and big horn sheep roamed the area anciently, and that was used to justify reintroducing the animals today. They are doing so well, some hunts are planned.

Numerous studies on climate and wildlife have occurred. Eaton says, for example, "In five years, we have identified 648 species of bees here ... 46 are newly described bees that occur nowhere else in the world."

She said some geology work identified iron concretions in sandstone in the monument "that are similar to the 'blueberries' they have found on Mars. These here are formed by the movement of water or petroleum through sandstone. So theoretically, that means there may have been liquid on Mars."

The monument is also working directly with NASA on a project to identify plants from space, and their spread over time. Specifically, it is working to track the spread of invasive tamarisk in the monument.

Eaton says all of that is exciting and helps show "this is an amazing place."

Finding acceptance

While some are still upset about the monument, most are learning to live with it — and say that is easier, because the monument is now doing a better job of involving surrounding communities in plans and activities.

Satter says, "The one criticism I had early on is that they didn't keep the public informed about what they are doing. Nobody had a clue what was going on."

But, he said, "Now they even have a public affairs officer, and he's doing a good job" helping communities understand the monument and be involved.

Larry Crutchfield is that public affairs officer. He said when he was hired, he was advised to go into the community and start talking to people. He said he found many had misconceptions or fears that were not well founded.

"One man told me he hated the monument. I asked why. He said it was because he couldn't go hunting there anymore. I said, 'Actually, yes you can,"' Crutchfield said.

When the man learned that, he then complained, "Well, I can't gather firewood there anymore." Crutchfield told him he could in areas set aside for that.

Eaton says the monument has formed scores of partnerships with local church, civic, school, scientific and other organizations to help with projects in the monument, which she said also seems to be increasing acceptance and use.

Partners of Grand Staircase-Escalante is among those groups — and includes people such as one-time foe Judd. He says he would like to see more bridge-building with local ranchers and others directly affected by the monument to build trust and allow changes that may bring more tourists and interest in the area.

"It still needs to be discovered, really. I see these tour buses come in here and find that Bryce, Zion and Grand Canyon are too full, that there's too many people there," he said. He adds that Grand Staircase does not have that problem and could be a good place for tourists to discover and help surrounding areas economically.

"There has got to be ways to make the monument friendly for everyone. We need to start planning on how to make this work and be good for everyone," he says.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com