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2 new national monuments in Utah?

Utah officials up in arms over leaked Interior document

Utah's San Rafael Swell, seen here, is mentioned in a leaked document as a prospect for a national monument.
Utah's San Rafael Swell, seen here, is mentioned in a leaked document as a prospect for a national monument.
Steve Baker, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Republicans say a just-leaked document reveals that the Obama administration has been quietly considering creating new national monuments throughout the West — including two in Utah — to block potential oil and coal development.

The Interior Department document, marked as "internal draft — not for release," lists 14 wild areas that "may be good candidates for national monument designation" by President Barack Obama, including Utah's San Rafael Swell, which is mostly in Emery County, and San Juan County's Cedar Mesa.

Outrage over the revelation is prompting Gov. Gary Herbert to get on a plane and meet with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Undersecretary David Hayes on Sunday and Monday to express his "deep concerns" over a move he characterized as "upsetting and offensive" because of lack of input.

Interior Department spokesman Kendra Barkoff on Thursday confirmed that the document came from her agency but said it merely reflects some "brainstorming discussions" with the Bureau of Land Management, and "no decisions have been made about which areas, if any, might merit more serious review and consideration."

Environmental groups hailed the possible move toward protecting more wild land, but most Utah elected officials howled that the situation looks like a repeat of former President Bill Clinton's surprise 1996 creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah to block a huge proposed coal mining operation there.

All four of Utah's Republican congressional delegation denounced the list, citing the lack of consultation and harm to Utah's interests, including industry.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, fired off a letter Thursday complaining to the Interior Department, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told Utah lawmakers he's crafting a bill that would allow BLM land to be sold. Even Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, was critical of the administration.

Reaction from local officials was even fiercer over areas they say are vital to their economic survival.

"I think it's outrageous," said San Juan County Commission Chairman Bruce Adams. He said Cedar Mesa has potential oil and other minerals that could be developed, but that activity would be blocked by a monument. "There's also a huge amount of grazing there. That (monument) would put cattle people out of the business."

Similarly, Emery County Commission Chairman Gary Kofford said a San Rafael monument in his area "would be devastating" because of the effect it could have on mining and grazing.

Both commissioners said their counties have worked with federal agencies on land management plans seeking a balance to protect wilderness and allow some development.

"Then the administration seems to want to come in and shove this down our throat," Adams said. "I am just outraged at the arrogance of this administration."

State Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who saw the surprise creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante in his county, said more monuments would represent another federal land grab. Noel said another "Take Back Utah Rally" by those who advocate "multi-use" of public lands is set for 1 p.m. Tuesday at the state Capitol.

Noel would like to see Congress exclude Utah from the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives presidents the authority to create national monuments without the approval of Congress. Wyoming was exempted from it in 1950 as a compromise to placate officials there when then-President Harry Truman created a monument that later became Grand Teton National Park.

Noel said the Antiquities Act "runs counter to the sovereignty of Utah." Both he and a Senate counterpart convinced their colleagues to open a new bill containing a resolution that would express their anger over the issue.

"There is outrage in this body, and I think there will be universal outrage throughout the state of Utah," Noel said.

Derk Beckstrand, head of Utah Shared Access Alliance, echoed Noel's sentiments and put out a call to action by those who advocate multi-use of public lands.

"Such actions are of the 'King George' mentality and have no place in the American system," he said. "Such lands are actually owned by the public at large, and as such, are held in trust, to be administered with a majority consent of such public. Anything less is dictatorship."

Meanwhile, news about possible new monuments was hailed by some environmental groups.

Scott Groene, with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said Utah is a prime place for the federal government to be looking for new national monuments.

"We're blessed with so much spectacular scenery," he said. "There are more areas here that are threatened and deserve protection than any other Western state, or frankly the lower 48."

Conceding that national monument designations are controversial and often political, Groene said they nevertheless have preserved vast areas of critical land in Utah, including Arches, Capitol Reef and the Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Groene also speculated that such consideration in Utah by the Interior Department might be a "pushback" to state lawmakers.

"When you have such extreme anti-federal sentiment up at the Legislature, it demonstrates to (federal officials) they can't work with the local politicians. It invites bold moves," he said.

Mark Clemens, with the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, said it's no surprise to him that the Cedar Mesa area wound up on the list, because it was up for monument consideration in the 1930s.

"Arch Canyon on the north end of the mesa was very seriously considered," he said, but decision-makers were distracted and overwhelmed by the stellar Rainbow Bridge.

"The section at the top end of Arch Canyon looks a lot like Zion Canyon with its natural bridges and really spectacular formations," he said.

Besides the possible Utah monuments, the leaked document also lists land in Arizona, California, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Washington as potential monuments.

Those areas include the Northwest Sonoran Desert in Arizona, the Heart of the Great Basin in Nevada, Colorado's Vermillion Basin and Washington's San Juan Islands.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche


Prospective national monument areas

San Rafael Swell, Utah

Northern Montana Prairie, Montana

Lesser Prairie Chicken Preserve, New Mexico

Berryessa Snow Mountains, California

Heart of the Great Basin, Nevada

Otero Mesa, New Mexico

Northwest Sonoran Desert, Arizona

Owyhee Desert, Oregon and Nevada

Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, California (expansion)

Vermillion Basin, Colorado

Bodie Hills, California

The Modoc Plateau, California

Cedar Mesa, Utah

San Juan Islands, Washington