How a Utah designation transformed politics in the West

By Phil Taylor | 07/13/2016 01:15 PM EDT

ESCALANTE, Utah — President Clinton’s surprise creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument nearly 20 years ago continues to roil the debate over public lands, from county commissions to the halls of Congress. It has also forced the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that manages it, to reinvent itself.

The coal-rich Kaiparowits Plateau looms 1,000 feet above a pinyon and juniper forest in Grand Staircase-Escalante.

The coal-rich Kaiparowits Plateau looms 1,000 feet above a pinyon and juniper forest in Grand Staircase-Escalante. Photo by Phil Taylor.

ESCALANTE, Utah — The ceremony marked a pivotal moment for the Bureau of Land Management, for the conservation of the American West and possibly for President Clinton’s re-election.

Sitting at a desk on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the president unilaterally protected 1.7 million acres of southern Utah desert, lands so rugged, remote and forbidding that they were the last to be mapped in the Lower 48.

Clinton’s proclamation on Sept. 18, 1996, described the newly established Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, with its multihued cliffs, zebra-striped slot canyons and soaring sandstone arches, in striking prose:


"It is a place where one can see how nature shapes human endeavors in the American West, where distance and aridity have been pitted against our dreams and courage."

Nearly 20 years later, Clinton’s surprise proclamation continues to shape the politics of public lands from county commissions to the halls of Congress, infuriating many critics. And it’s made an indelible mark on BLM, the agency that manages it.

In the history of the 1906 Antiquities Act — the law that gives presidents unfettered power to create monuments banning drilling, mining and road building — Clinton’s designation was an exhibit in extremes.

Grand Staircase-Escalante remains the largest land-based national monument to be designated. It is 53 times larger than neighboring Bryce Canyon National Park and is bigger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore
President Clinton, accompanied by Vice President Al Gore, signs the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument proclamation. | Photo courtesy of AP Images.

It was also the first to be managed by BLM, a multiple-use agency whose oversight of roughly 250 million acres of the West had been largely dominated by extractive uses like oil and gas, mining, and grazing.

Until then, the National Park Service, with its singular mission of preservation, and the Forest Service, with its lofty pines, jagged peaks and alpine lakes, had been the favored stewards of the nation’s wilderness, parks, monuments and other scenic lands.

Grand Staircase-Escalante forced the 50-year-old BLM — long known as the "neglected stepchild" of the wilderness movement — to reinvent itself.

"It was functionally one of the very seminal moments in BLM’s conservation evolution," said Ken Rait, director of U.S. public lands for the Pew Charitable Trusts, who was with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in 1996. "I think we’re still living that evolution today."

Before leaving office, Clinton would designate 13 more BLM monuments covering 3.5 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon and Montana. They laid the foundation for then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to establish within BLM a National Landscape Conservation System, a new division "to conserve, protect and restore special areas and unique resources."

BLM’s NLCS — now known as the National Conservation Lands — today contains 32 million acres of national monuments, conservation areas, wilderness, wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, and other protected sites, and has its own assistant director and budget.

Grand Staircase-Escalante map

Yet for many in the West, and particularly the Beehive State, Grand Staircase-Escalante remains a symbol of federal power run amok. Carried out in near-total secrecy, Clinton’s designation sowed distrust and resentment among state officials. Critics blasted Clinton for locking up a massive coal deposit and turning the region into a vast playground for Easterners.

"Our founding fathers feared special interests taking away freedom, but today we have another problem," House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) wrote in an op-ed last month in the Boston Herald. "One man in the Oval Office can lock up land and water from the entire nation with the stroke of a pen. This isn’t the original intent of the Antiquities Act."

Clinton’s designation — the first by a president in roughly two decades — rekindled Republican efforts to reform the Antiquities Act, a push that continues to this day.

With the political wounds still fresh, Grand Staircase-Escalante is also shaping today’s debate in southeast Utah over a proposal by American Indians and conservationists for President Obama to designate a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. Administration officials will converge on Utah this Saturday to discuss future management of the Bears Ears area (Greenwire, July 11).

"Grand Staircase is the lens through which many in southern Utah view public lands issues," said Luke Johnson, who served as BLM’s deputy director during the George W. Bush administration and is now with the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP. "It totally colors this whole debate."

‘We can’t have mines everywhere’

Clinton preserved one of the most sparsely inhabited places in the Lower 48, a land etched by only a handful of paved roads. The July 1996 edition of Car and Driver magazine named Basin Canyon on the monument’s Kaiparowits Plateau the "loneliest spot in America."

"Here, within a 30-mile radius, you will find no homes, few footprints and no cable TV," the magazine said. The nearest settlement was Escalante, population 751, followed by the village of Boulder — the last settlement in the United States to be reached by an automobile, the article said.

Moqui marbles
Iron-coated “Moqui marbles” are among the geologic oddities found in the monument. | Photo by Phil Taylor.

The proclamation preserved meandering desert washes and snaking canyons, where plum-sized iron spheres pop from the sandstone walls like pimples.

Seventy-five million years ago, this parched desert was part of a lush, subtropical, coastal plain occupied by Tyrannosaurus rex and velociraptors.

Today, it’s full of coal — 62 billion tons, according to state geologists.

The fuel’s buried under the Kaiparowits Plateau, a Rhode Island-size mesa that towers more than 1,000 feet above the Hole-in-the-Rock road, a route blazed by Mormon pioneers on their way to the Colorado River in the late 1800s.

In 1995, Andalex Resources Inc., a Dutch company, was poised to build the Smoky Hollow Mine on federal lands about 20 miles from the tiny town of Big Water, and was awaiting approval from BLM. The underground mine promised to unearth 72 million tons of coal, generate about $120 million in royalties and bring several hundred jobs to rural Kane County, population 5,169.

But the monument effectively killed it.

It was a massive blow to nearby Kanab, where businesses shut down, restaurants advertised for "Clinton Burgers: 100 Percent Chicken" and schoolchildren released 50 black balloons in mourning, according to news reports.

In his designation speech, Clinton said mining jobs are good jobs and important to the economy, "but we can’t have mines everywhere, and we shouldn’t have mines that threaten our national treasures."

Utah’s elected officials were stunned.

"Part of the problem with that designation is that nobody knew about it," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) said recently. "Our governor found out about it by reading The Washington Post."

The monument’s size shocked even Clinton’s environmentalist allies.

Surely areas within the monument like Canyons of the Escalante, with its green ribbon of cottonwood trees and tributaries of slot canyons, water pockets and geologic domes, seemed worthy of Antiquities Act protections. But the decision to loop in places like the Kaiparowits coal field and the roaded Circle Cliffs, which some environmentalists were privately willing to negotiate away, was seen as a coup.

"Never in a million years did we think we were going to get protections for those lands," said Robert Weinick, an environmentalist who helped start the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance from his home on the banks of the Escalante River in 1983. "The protection here was so instantaneous and big — 1.7 million — it was overwhelming."

‘A big, splashy production’

Clinton’s move was driven in part by politics, according to White House documents and later interviews with administration officials.

Katie McGinty, who chaired the White House Council on Environmental Quality and is now running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, said in an August 1996 memo that a designation would score political points with Clinton’s supporters who were disillusioned after he signed a bill opening forests to salvage logging.

"It really came out of people around the president who were looking for a big, splashy production at the front end of the ’96 election," Babbitt said in an interview last fall for the Southern Utah Oral History Project, an initiative backed by the Utah Division of State History and BLM to preserve stories associated with the Grand Staircase-Escalante region.

Pollster Dick Morris (who now is advising Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump) told Clinton then that soccer moms would be a key constituency in his race against former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and that they cared deeply about the environment, Babbitt said.

In July 1996, McGinty asked John Leshy, Interior’s solicitor at the time, to draft a monument package for the president’s consideration, Leshy said.

"Katie’s instructions to me on size were rather general," Leshy said in an interview for the oral history project. "The White House wanted to protect a pretty large area to put the industrialization issue to bed, to stop the possibility of coal development."

But what set Grand Staircase-Escalante apart was Babbitt’s push to keep it in BLM’s hands, a move that infuriated some Park Service officials.

Babbitt got the idea during a 1993 hike through BLM’s East Mojave National Scenic Area with BLM California Director Ed Hastey. A bill at the time by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would have transferred the desert’s scenic valleys, dunes and lava flows from BLM to the Park Service to become the Mojave National Preserve.

Hastey told Babbitt the lands should stay with BLM.

"We’d been managing it for a long time, and there’s no question we had the expertise," Hastey told Greenwire. Transferring the lands would "impact the morale of our people who worked hard to make that a scenic area."

Babbitt took the message to Feinstein, but the bill was too close to passage to be tweaked.

"The Park Service didn’t have the goddamn guts to call it a park, so they called it a preserve," Hastey said. "It wasn’t national park quality."

Hastey impressed Babbitt. If every "crown jewel" on the BLM estate was transferred to the Park Service, how could BLM be expected to embrace conservation, Babbitt recalled asking himself.

Keeping Grand Staircase-Escalante in BLM’s care would challenge the stereotype that it only managed the lands nobody wanted and would soften some local concerns over making it a full-fledged park, Clinton officials said. Yet not all conservationists were on board.

"There was, I’d say, in the conservation community excitement for the protection of the place," said Brian O’Donnell, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation. "But there were legitimate questions. There were people in the conservation community asking, ‘Is BLM going to be able to do this?’"

Once mocked as the "Bureau of Livestock and Mining," BLM had operated much like a state agency, its staff deeply embedded in the local communities, Babbitt said. Clinton’s proclamation gave BLM marching orders directly from the White House.

Some BLM employees were as skeptical of Washington, D.C., as Utahans were, Babbitt said.

"BLM lands were long seen as the domain of the extractive industries," said Mike Dombeck, who was BLM’s acting director at the time. "What national monuments did is really round out the portfolio of BLM lands."

Growing pains

Pushback was fierce in Kane and Garfield counties, where the prospect of tighter land restrictions inspired sporadic protests and acts of civil disobedience.

Soon after the designation, Babbitt and Clinton were hung in effigy in Escalante, a town that depended heavily on federal lands for grazing and timber. Jerry Meredith, the monument’s interim manager and a Utah native, needed a police escort to meet with the town’s residents, according to Marsha Holland, a historian who lives in Tropic, Utah.

In October 1996, Kane and Garfield graded dirt roads through the monument’s wilderness study areas, asserting local control under a Civil War-era law known as R.S. 2477 and landing the counties in federal court.

Utah counties later sued Clinton, arguing the Antiquities Act violates the Constitution by usurping Congress’ power to manage federal lands. They also claimed Clinton had failed to preserve the smallest area of land necessary to protect the monument’s resources, as required in the 1906 act, among other claims.

In a ruling several years later, the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah seemed to sympathize with Utah, writing that "despite what may have been the intent of some members of Congress, use of the Antiquities Act has clearly expanded beyond the protection of antiquities."

Yet it ultimately sided with the White House, saying courts have "no authority to determine whether the president abused his discretion." The upshot, according to legal scholars, is that a president’s power under the Antiquities Act is virtually unlimited.

In 2000, BLM finalized its first land-use plan for the monument.

Calf Creek
Calf Creek, with its green ribbon of cottonwood trees, winds its way toward the Escalante River. | Photo by Phil Taylor.

Unlike national parks, with their paved roads, parking lots, lodges and restaurants, Grand Staircase-Escalante was to be managed in its "primitive, frontier state," the plan said. Visitor amenities were limited to "minor facilities such as interpretive kiosks and pullouts" on the periphery of the monument. The existing road network was to remain in its unimproved condition, and cross-country motorized travel was prohibited.

That summer, amid severe drought, BLM asked ranchers to remove their cattle from the monument’s withered range so it could heal. When a few ranchers refused, BLM rounded up the cows itself. But ranchers later descended on the auction yard in Sevier County and — under the sheriff’s watch — took the bovines back.

"We said, ‘We’re going to put a stop to this,’" said David Johnson, a rancher from Moccasin, Ariz., who kept some of the disputed cows on his ranch just south of the Utah-Arizona border.

It foreshadowed future battles over BLM grazing restrictions, including Cliven Bundy’s armed standoff with BLM in Bunkerville, Nev., in April 2014.

Critics said the monument gave environmentalists new influence over BLM decisions. The selection of Kate Cannon, a former Park Service superintendent at Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota, as the monument’s first permanent manager confirmed their fears.

For better or worse, BLM’s culture was changing.

"The BLM was really a good agency, and probably still is to some degree," said Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock. "But when the Grand Staircase was created, it was thrown on them. A fish out of water is putting it mildly."

Others say the monument sparked a much-needed paradigm shift.

"Grand Staircase-Escalante has been transformative for both BLM and the manner in which significant lands and the cultural, scientific and natural values they possess are managed and protected," said Carl Rountree, who led BLM’s National Conservation Lands until his retirement in late 2014. "For BLM, it provided greater focus on the conservation part of its multiple-use mission as required by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act — a part that was sometimes overlooked in carrying out other uses on public land prior to that time."

‘Fill that bucket’

The agency’s evolution has continued under the Obama administration.

BLM has taken controversial steps to restrict drilling near parks, wildlife habitat and cultural sites; to craft sage grouse protection plans spanning 50 million acres; and to revisit its coal leasing program. Meanwhile, it has inherited several of the national monuments Obama has designated.

Clinton’s designations — driven by Babbitt — set a template, said Rebecca Watson, who served as Interior assistant secretary overseeing BLM during the George W. Bush administration. Congress followed step in 2009 by making BLM’s conservation office permanent, she said.

"Now Interior and willing presidents will ‘fill that bucket’ by adding new BLM monuments and other protected areas like [areas of critical environmental concern]," she said. "I think there is continuing concern about how much multiple-use lands, upon which public land counties depend, will be put into the protected status of monuments and what role the views of locals and their elected officials can and should play in those federal designations."

Whether Grand Staircase-Escalante helped or harmed southern Utah remains an open debate.

The populations of Kane and Garfield grew from 9,133 in 1990 to 12,278 in 2014, according to federal data compiled by Headwaters Economics. The total number of full- and part-time jobs and personal income nearly doubled during that period.

Zebra Canyon
Zebra Canyon near Escalante gets its name from the streaks in its sandstone walls. | Photo by Phil Taylor.

New outfitting companies, lodges and restaurants have sprung up in Escalante, hoping to capitalize on the increased tourist traffic along Utah’s Scenic Byway 12.

"The facts don’t lie: The data show there has most likely been growth in key economic indicators across both counties," said Rait of the Pew Charitable Trusts. "In contrast to what Chicken Little said, the sky did not fall."

Yet there are also signs of trouble in Garfield. The percentage of school-aged kids has fallen from 27 to 19 percent since 1990, and school enrollment has fallen by roughly 20 percent. Commissioners last summer declared a "state of emergency," blaming land-use restrictions in the monument.

There’s been an inflow of wealthy retirees, empty-nesters and young professionals, a demographic trend that makes some longtime residents uncomfortable.

Asked about it during last month’s Western Governors’ Association meeting in Jackson, Wyo., Herbert said it’s "debatable" whether Kane and Garfield are better or worse off since 1996.

"Some of it is probably good," he said. "But for a lot of people in that rural part of Utah, I think the negative aspects outweigh the positive aspects."

As the Obama administration considers flexing its Antiquities Act muscle to designate a Bears Ears National Monument, Utahans are demanding their voices be heard.

"Let’s make sure we work together on it," said Herbert. "We don’t want to be blindsided like we were with the Clinton administration."

Conservationists said protecting Grand Staircase-Escalante was an important step in leveraging the recreational value of BLM lands.

Hiking, camping, fishing and other nonmotorized activities on BLM lands generated an estimated $1.8 billion in 2014 in spending in communities within 50 miles of the recreation sites, according to a new report by Eugene, Ore.-based ECONorthwest and commissioned by Pew (Greenwire, April 1).

"In the long run, people are feeling like this experiment with the BLM has headed in the right direction," O’Donnell said. "But it will take another generation to decide if this was America’s next best idea."