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CEDAR CITY — Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt told a crowd of rural leaders to be proactive to protect public lands yet preserve their utilization to temper future national monument designations that undoubtedly await Utah.
"This is a very important lesson from history," he said, noting Utah's scenic landscapes will tempt action from future "left-leaning" Democratic U.S. presidents to carve out substantial blocks of land for new monuments over the next 75 years.
Leavitt, speaking Friday at the 30th annual Utah Rural Summit in Cedar City, was Utah's governor in 1996 when he learned from a Washington Post article that the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was in the making by then-President Bill Clinton.
"It is a story of something that shouldn’t happen in our country. The truth of the matter is, the federal government made a decision to use the Antiquities Act to take a piece of land in secret about the size of three states in the Northeast," he said.
Leavitt said he flew to Washington, D.C., where he was "stonewalled" but finally got a meeting with Clinton's chief of staff.
He waited in his hotel room late into the evening for a phone call from the White House, and about 1:45 a.m. it came.
Leavitt said he spent 30 minutes on the phone with the president, who told him the decision on designation was nonnegotiable.
Clinton announced it later that day from Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.
In hindsight, Leavitt said there should have been a more aggressive approach to create a "national eco-region" called the Canyons of the Escalante. Had that proven successful, there may have been a better outcome, he added.
"If we had initiated action, we might have been much more succesful in being able to carve out a management plan for that land that would have been better for the land, better for the economy and better for democracy. Now we've seen a repeat on Bears Ears," he said.
Earlier Friday, a pair of public policy experts said controversial monument designations in Utah and the recent departure of the Outdoor Retailer trade shows from Salt Lake City may make it look like residents are divided on public lands, but they are not.
LaVarr Webb, publisher of UtahPolicy.com, political consultant and former managing editor of the Deseret News, said he doesn't believe the public lands feud over monuments is creating a “divide" between urban and rural Utah.
"I think the issue with Bears Ears and other national monuments can be resolved reasonably," he told participants at the summit.
"I don't understand why any reasonable person wouldn't support some reduction in size" at Bears Ears, he added.
Frank Pignanelli, a Democrat who spent 10 years in the Utah Legislature — six of those years as minority leader — said Utah is the best-managed state in the country, but leaders have not done a good job of getting the message out about their environmental stewardship.
"Most people don't even know where the hell Bears Ears is, but they want it protected," Pignanelli said.
If asked the question if the region should be protected, Pignanelli said people will say yes, but respond with a resounding no if it means the federal government should have total control.
On the flip side, Pignanelli said environmental groups have "done a good job of convincing people" that Bears Ears will be "pillaged" should it not remain a monument.
"We have to do a better job of messaging," he said.
The two were among featured speakers at the closing day of the rural summit at Southern Utah University, where they talked about Washington politics, the 3rd District congressional race, a possible retirement for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and ballot initiatives.
In a question-and-answer period afterward, the controversy of Utah's public lands came up, and specifically if the views of urban and rural Utah were set on a collision course due to monuments and the state's rift with the Outdoor Industry Association.
The group pulled out of Utah because of widespread political condemnation over the recent Bears Ears Monument designation and continued opposition to the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument.
Webb predicted the state will shrug off the economic impacts of the trade show's departure, adding his own view was "don't let the door hit you on the way out."
While a "disconnect" may exist between the urbanized Wasatch Front and the rest of Utah, Webb said he doesn't believe the public lands controversy is contributing to widening division between the regions.
Pignanelli said since 90 percent of Utah residents now live in cities, they understandably want outdoor regions protected, but they have a continuing distrust of the federal government built into their DNA.
The summit attempts to broker solutions to unique challenges facing rural regions of Utah, particularly federal land ownership and pressures on natural resource extractions and grazing.
Steven Styler, co-chairman of the Utah Governor's Rural Partnership Board, detailed ongoing funding challenges to address struggling areas of the state in a synopsis of a report to summit participants.
The Industrial Assistance Fund, which sat at $15.9 million in fiscal year 2015, has dwindled to $6 million this fiscal year.
The fund provides grants to create high-paying jobs in the state, including the Rural Fast Track program specifically aimed at rural areas.
An electronics engineering and consulting business started in Manti several years ago built a warehouse and boosted its number of employees with assistance from the grant program.
The summit marked the official statewide rollout of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's rural jobs initiative, which seeks to create 25,000 jobs in 25 counties off the Wasatch Front over four years.
On Thursday, Herbert announced he wants to convene a statewide rural summit in Salt Lake City to hammer out additional ways to help Utah's rural economies.