Staircase wrangling likely over for good
The legal tussle over President Clinton's 1996 designation of a vast national monument in southern Utah most likely ended Monday.
Nearly a decade ago, Clinton stood on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and announced the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, covering 1.7 million acres including most of Garfield and Kane counties - much to the dismay of local elected officials who felt snubbed, and to those who wanted to develop a rich but remote coal preserve.
Monday, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver threw out the claims of the last remaining plaintiff, ruling the Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation failed to show it had legal standing to file suit. Unless Mountain States mounts an unlikely U.S., Supreme Court appeal, the case is now over.
"This is a real positive outcome," said Heidi McIntosh, with Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), which headlined a number of environmental groups that intervened to defend the Grand Staircase. "This monument has turned out to be a real boon for the entire state."
The Mountain States Legal Foundation argued that Clinton overreached his executive authority by creating the monument, just a few months before he was up for reelection. Clinton relied on the Antiquities Act of 1906, which the foundation argued limited the size of presidentially created monuments to the "smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be created."
The foundation had legal help from the Utah Association of Counties and the Utah Schools and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).
The counties association bowed out after a federal judge in Utah ruled against their claims and SITLA pulled its support even earlier after Utah and federal officials negotiated a $50 million settlement. Only the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which represents grazing, mining and motorized-recreation interests, appealed.
Mountain States argued that it had standing to sue on behalf of Don Wood, who owned Southwest Stone, a company that mined alabaster on what became monument land. He failed to file his annual paperwork and subsequently lost the ability to mine. He closed his 20-year-old business in 1999.
The court ruled that Wood's actions, not the actions of Clinton or any other government official, caused him to lose his mining rights, since he didn't file the appropriate forms. And the judges found that Wood's mining troubles came more than a year after Clinton created the national monument.
Mountain States President William Perry Pendley was unavailable for comment on Monday.
The judges did not issue opinions on any of Mountain States' other claims, or those filed by the state of Utah in a friend of the court brief.
Authorized by the administration of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., the Utah Attorney General's Office filed a brief arguing for a reinterpretation of the Antiquities Act, but not specifically challenging the creation of the Grand Staircase-ÂEscalante monument.
"Nearly 70 percent of all Utah land is federally controlled," the brief argued. "A mere stroke of an unchecked presidential pen could send Utah reeling."
Utah is not reeling, according to McIntosh, rather it is enjoying the monument's success. Visitors are drawn to its natural arches and remote lands, while fossils and rock art are being preserved.
A monumental decision?
l What: A Denver appeals court dismissed a lawsuit over creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
l What it means: The monument's creation by President Clinton in 1996 probably is no longer in question.