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What’s next for the Utah monuments? Here are three tasks Robert Gehrke says are crucial

If we want these monuments to meet their potential, work needs to start working now on management, stability.

(Susan Walsh | AP) President Joe Biden shakes hands with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at the White House in Washington, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, before he speaks at an event announcing that his administration is restoring protections for two sprawling national monuments in Utah that have been at the center of a long-running public lands dispute, and a separate marine conservation area in New England that recently has been used for commercial fishing.

“This may be the easiest thing I’ve ever done.”

That was what President Joe Biden said about signing the proclamations restoring Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to their original grandeur.

And Biden was not wrong. Signing the proclamations was absolutely the easy part.

But if he wants to make the two monument designations worth more than the paper they were written on, the hard work starts now toward meeting these three crucial tasks.

Management and funding

After President Barack Obama originally created the monument in 2019, the Bureau of Land Management never even got signs put in designating the park’s boundaries. According to reporting by my colleague Zak Podmore, the BLM’s Monticello field office currently has about 10 field rangers and two law enforcement officers to cover more than 2 million acres, including Bears Ears.

That’s not going to cut it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

On Friday, the White House committed to “ensuring that there is adequate staffing and resources” to protect the resources in the monument. That includes additional rangers, signage and infrastructure, including a potential visitors center.

They need to be held to that commitment, because creating a major tourist draw bringing more people to the region without providing the funds to protect the resources will put the artifacts at more risk than if there hadn’t been a monument in the first place.

The second important piece is establishing a structure that ensures tribal leaders are front-and-center in the management of the monument. Again, the Biden administration has committed to doing that, but follow-through is essential.

Swap out state land

Whether you liked the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument or hate it, one clear benefit emerged from the designation. In May 1998, then-Gov. Mike Leavitt signed an agreement with then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to swap 377,000 acres of School and Institutional Trust Land parcels scattered within the monument and elsewhere for 145,000 acres of concentrated clusters of federal lands elsewhere in the state.

The state gave up essentially undevelopable land and got parcels that proved to a major benefit to the state and Utah schoolchildren. In 2012, Leavitt wrote that it had brought in $400 million for SITLA and presumably has generated hundreds of millions more since.

When Obama designated Bears Ears, SITLA estimated there were 109,000 acres encased within the new monument but a swap never got done. Quick work to swap those lands would benefit the federal government by making the management process cleaner and could reap another windfall for Utah schools.

Work to ensure stability

Finally, there needs to be some permanence for the monument, and this might well be the most challenging task.

It’s safe to assume that Utah’s elected leaders will exhaust every option to undo the monument. That will likely include a lawsuit — even though the state lost its challenge to the Grand Staircase Monument — and pursue dismantling both monuments through congressional action.

And even assuming those don’t work, the potential remains for the next Republican president to try to eviscerate the monuments, like Trump did. (It would have been great, by the way, to have had the federal courts rule on the legality of Trump’s dismantling of the monuments, but that didn’t happen.)

Ensuring the future of the monument will likely take an act of Congress and that will take compromise, something that is elusive in the current climate, especially on such a charged political issue.

And that’s unfortunate, because past monument designations are a big part of what makes Utah what it is today and have been a boon to nearby communities.

Would residents of Springdale want to wake up one morning to discover that President William Howard Taft hadn’t created Mukuntuweap National Monument, which later became Zion National Park?

Given the opportunity, would Moab residents go back to 1929 and try to talk President Herbert Hoover out of designating the Arches National Monument? Would Torrey be better off if President Franklin Roosevelt never created Capitol Reef National Monument?

It’s absurd to think any of these places would be better off if the revered Mighty Five was the Might-Have-Been Five.

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