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Guest opinion: Turning a win-win public lands compromise into a loss for all Americans

April photo of the Utah Geological Survey's 2018 Calendar of Utah Geology: The hoodoos of Devils Garden, Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, Garfield County.
April photo of the Utah Geological Survey's 2018 Calendar of Utah Geology: The hoodoos of Devils Garden, Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, Garfield County.
John Good

President Trump’s rollback of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the recent news of new mining claims in the monument have turned a historic deal upside down.

Many Utahns are familiar with the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The designation was very unpopular with most state and local leaders and Utah’s congressional delegation at the time. However, it is evident that few people remember that through the outstanding leadership of Gov. Michael Leavitt, a partnership was formed with Secretary Babbitt’s Department of Interior. The most critical outcome of this partnership was a massive land exchange.

As state planning coordinator for the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget at the time, I coordinated public lands issues for the state, including leading the negotiations for this exchange. Of course, it was accomplished with the support of the State Institutional Trust Lands Administration. It took hard work and collaboration to reach a consensus.

The agreement involved the swap of hundreds of thousands of acres of state and federal lands. These lands included 175,000 acres of inholdings within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and nearly 200,000 acres of inholdings on other federal and tribal lands to improve management. In exchange, the state received $50 million in cash plus 145,000 acres of former federal lands and mineral rights to rich supplies of coal and gas.

To date, Utah has made over $360 million from this deal. Gov. Michael Leavitt, who said in 2012, “The success of the National Parks and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument Land Exchange reminds us that we can all agree on some land-use opportunities right in front of us.”

Unfortunately, the rollback of protections for Grand Staircase has ignored these agreements and undermined years of good work done by many state and federal agencies, residents and businesses.

Several of the recent mining claims reported on Colt Mesa are on lands included in the exchange in 1998. These lands were traded by the state for the purposes of conservation and aiding the management of the monument. Opening these lands to mining flies in the face of the agreement and may be unlawful. Congress unanimously ratified the land exchange with the Utah Schools and Land Exchange Act of 1998, which codified the boundaries and made clear these lands were to be managed as part of the monument.

Opening these lands to mining isn’t just bad-faith negotiation — it's bad economics too. Locally, a vibrant new tourism economy has formed around Grand Staircase. For two decades, business owners have depended on the monument and its boundaries and the resultant growing visitation. This is why the Escalante & Boulder Chamber of Commerce vocally opposed changes to the monument. Now there is a whole new level of uncertainty — will these new boundaries become permanent or are there more changes to come?

In addition, the General Mining Law of 1872 — which still governs hard rock mining on public lands — doesn’t require royalties be paid for extraction on these lands. So, there will be no return from mining on lands that taxpayers paid to acquire in the first place.

My years of working for the state of Utah have shown that consensus solutions like the Utah Schools and Land Exchange Act offer the best outcomes. Reaching consensus takes trust, compromise and a willingness to negotiate in good faith for lasting agreements. The elimination of nearly half of the monument not only jeopardizes local economies and could lead to years of expensive litigation, it poisons the well for the future.

By violating our previous agreements why would future stakeholders trust our government leaders as good-faith negotiators? How will we get diverse stakeholders to the table when they cannot trust the process to honor its promises?

Unlike the original agreement, the current situation is truly an outcome where no one wins.