It may be more a question of when than if President Obama will wave his presidential scepter and create a new national monument in southern Utah. If he does, it will be a good end but a bad means.
When the president created the half-million-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico in May, he said he wasn’t done using the 1906 Antiquities Act, which grants him the power to create monuments without any role or input from either Congress or the states.
And now 14 Democratic senators are encouraging him to create the Greater Canyonlands National Monument, which would essentially expand Utah’s largest national park and remove thousands of acres from potential oil and gas development, as environmental groups have sought.
We’ve been here before with President Bill Clinton’s 1996 declaration of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which killed a potential coal mine on the Kaiparowitz plateau.
In both cases, Utah’s political leadership strenuously, and legitimately, objected to such a change with no negotiation with the people living on or near the monuments.
The monument’s supporters can make the case, as they did 18 years ago, that political inertia forces the president’s hand — an inertia illustrated by the 50-year failure to negotiate what should be considered wilderness on BLM land in Utah.
As Clinton said, and Obama likely will say, action was necessary because the extractors were poised to exploit. But the reality was that there were lots of hurdles to developing the Kaiparowitz coal. While there were always mine proposals floated, there were factors — environmental regulation, coal prices, distance to market, among others — that made it so no bulldozers were about to start digging. Even without the monument, the Kaiparowitz coal might still be sitting there.
In other words, President Clinton’s urgency was overstated, and President Obama’s likely will be, too.
Rep. Rob Bishop, who heads a House subcommittee on federal lands, deserves credit for trying to negotiate. Long a defender of oil and gas development, Bishop has reached across to environmental groups recently. It may have taken the imminent threat of a monument to make him do that, but at least he did. (Sen. Orrin Hatch, on the other hand, adds nothing constructive when he likens a declaration to the Pearl Harbor attack.)
There are outstanding reasons to preserve lands around Canyonlands. Our state will never be known for its contributions to American energy independence. It is, however, known all over the planet for its spectacular and delicate beauty. That is a national legacy and not Utah’s alone.
In the best circumstance, the president should use the big stick of the Antiquities Act to negotiate with local stakeholders. That would be governance comparable to the scenery.
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