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Utah's Mighty 6? Lawmakers urge support for new Escalante National Park

A view of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from Spencer Flat on Sunday, July 9, 2017.
FILE - A view of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from Spencer Flat on Sunday, July 9, 2017.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — One Utah lawmaker believes a small national park in the Escalante region of southern Utah will do more for the area economically in two years than a sprawling national monument has accomplished in two decades.

"It will do much more for these areas to diversify their economy," said Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, describing his resolution Wednesday before the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Standing Committee.

Okerlund is sponsoring SCR8 in support of legislation before Congress sponsored by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, that establishes a national park and two national monuments in the area inside the geographic footprint of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

In a proclamation signed in Utah in December, President Donald Trump moved to untangle the 1.9 million-acre monument designated in 1996, asserting its size and the manner in which it was created fell outside presidential authority granted under a 1906 law.

Even as a flurry of lawsuits were rushed to the courts to oppose the Trump administration's move, Stewart detailed legislation to create the 243,241-acre Escalante Canyons National Park and two national monuments.

Okerlund said the national park will be an even bigger draw than the monument, and the two new national monuments will be managed to protect multiple uses, as well as natural resources and cultural artifacts.

"This park will probably be a blessing to this part of the county," said Dell LaFevre, a former Garfield County commissioner, school board member and rancher. LaFevre said the area is just a "pass-through" region for tourists, but a national park would change that.

"It will be a real godsend to the people trying to make a living there."

Matt Anderson, with the Sutherland Institute, also testified in favor of the resolution, urging a congressional solution to land use disputes rather than presidential directives.

"It becomes a political football depending on who occupies the White House," Anderson said.

But Ashley Soltysiak, director of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, urged committee members to vote against the resolution, saying it goes against the will of Utah residents.

The environmental leader said the dismantling of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument will cripple the region's economy and put in jeopardy precious natural resources.

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said she was voting in favor of the resolution but reluctantly.

"I really have a struggle having the federal government involved at all," she said.

The resolution passed 6-1, with Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, voting against it. It now moves to the full Senate for further debate.