On Wednesday, President Obama invoked the powers granted by the Antiquities Act to declare a Bears Ears National Monument for Utah, protecting 1.35 million acres known to locals for breathtaking vistas and a cache of sacred native sites.
The monument comes after Rep. Rob Bishop’s oft-delayed and criticized Public Lands Initiative failed to ever materialize in Congress.
In a state in which the federal government controls more than 65 percent of its geographic footprint, Utah officials are not unjustified in feeling slighted by this latest designation. What’s more, the Antiquities Act itself — which bypasses congressional processes — certainly merits continued scrutiny by Utah’s delegation.
Yet while there is already talk of lawsuits challenging the designation, or a rescinding of the order by the next administration, the state must not lose sight of the possible benefits that could arise from the new monument — especially increased tourism and the potential for land swaps to benefit the state's education fund.
Utah has successfully pitched itself as home to “the Mighty 5” — a constellation of national parks that attract millions of visitors from around the world. The national parks and monuments boost the state’s burgeoning tourism economy during non-snow months. The state should not inhibit the economic benefits to local residents and businesses that will accrue from the designation.
Also, the state should try to take advantage of potential land swaps that might benefit Utah schools. When Utah was granted statehood, the federal government gave it land — albeit in odd checkered patches. The land was developed with the proceeds going to benefit state schools. These so-called education trust lands comprise more than 6 percent of all Utah lands. Yet, due to their odd patterns, over time some of the land became encased inside portions of federal wilderness areas and is now difficult to develop on behalf of the education fund.
The Utah State Board of Education already passed a resolution last year stating that the school fund should be “held harmless” in the event of a monument designation. In other words, for any state school trust land that is engulfed in this monument, Utah might seek to swap land for other acreage controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. This, of course, occurred with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. As officials have pointed out, there’s no guarantee this will take place, but it’s worth trying for the benefit of Utah school children. Late Wednesday, the state Board of Education directly asked Pres. Obama to address the issue of the more than 100,000 acres of non-public trust land in the monument through exchanges.
President Obama’s monument is yet another display of the kind of executive power he has wielded throughout his presidency, and Utah's federalism-minded officials are responding in kind. However, when the dust settles, Utah must look to make the most of its new Bears Ears National Monument.