Washington • A congressional hearing Thursday on a proposal to create a new national park out of the remnants of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument focused on the long-simmering angst with President Bill Clinton’s designation 21 years before.
Republicans on a House Natural Resources subcommittee said they planned to take the opportunity to make it right after President Donald Trump dismantled the 1.9 million-acre monument and replaced it with three smaller footprints.
Former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who served as Utah’s chief executive when Clinton created the monument, said Thursday that “this time, we can do better.”
“The secrecy and the circumstances surrounding the creation of the monument was an abuse of power, process and protocol so egregious that it is offensive to the concept of democracy itself,” Leavitt testified, noting that he backs the bill by Rep. Chris Stewart to codify Trump’s executive action.
Stewart’s brother, Ted Stewart, was Leavitt’s Natural Resources director when the monument was designated and later became chief of staff to the governor before Ted Stewart’s appointment as a federal judge.
Leavitt and others revisited how they learned of Clinton’s intentions to name a large monument in Utah from The Washington Post and how the administration denied it was true up to the night before the announcement and how it had hurt local communities.
“This is not the way public lands decisions should or were ever intended to be made,” Leavitt said.
Stewart’s legislation would create the new Escalante Canyons National Park out of 100,000 acres inside the former monument boundaries as well as put into law the three other monuments Trump replaced the larger protection with: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits and Escalante Canyons. The park would be designated inside the latter national monument.
Additionally, Stewart’s bill would transfer the Hole in the Rock Road to the state of Utah and create a management council to oversee the monuments and national parks comprised of local officials.
Democrats and environmentalists say Stewart’s bill is a ruse to make moot several lawsuits filed against Trump’s actions arguing the president doesn’t have the power to withdraw a monument designation and also constitutes a giveaway to oil, gas and mining interests.
“Republicans scrambled to pull together a Grand Staircase-Escalante bill and rushed to hold a hearing on it today because the monument lawsuits against Trump are piling up and they know they’re going to lose,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said Thursday.
Arizona’s Grijalva added that if Utah’s members of Congress wanted to pass legislation to overturn or change the original Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, they’ve had 20 years to do so.
“Rushing to consider a barely introduced bill without comment from either of the relevant federal land-management agencies is reckless,” Grijalva said.
Stewart defended his measure as a way to solve the fight over public lands and ensure that activities like hunting, fishing, trapping and grazing are allowed in nonwilderness areas. And he said it would benefit the local economy by bringing in higher-paying jobs. Under questioning, Stewart said that does include oil, gas and mining in some areas.
“I’m not hiding from that,” he said. “I’m embracing that.”
Leland Pollock, chairman of the Garfield County Commission, donned a cowboy hat to testify that there have been “negative impacts” since the monument designation in 1996 and that while some areas deserve protection, there are vast swaths that do not.
“I’m sorry, but people are not going to travel from all over the world to look at sage brush and regular BLM rangeland,” Pollock said. “There’s no tourism value.”
But Susan Hand, general manager of the Willow Canyon Outdoor Co. in Kanab that sells books, espresso and outdoor gear, said she and other businesses were concerned about the long-term repercussions with the monument changes. She said her store is already down in sales compared to last year because of all the negative attention to the monuments.
“We don’t feel that the excised monuments and proposed national park will ever replace the loss of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument,” she said. “This land belongs to all of us. To codify the unravelment of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is to disrespect that. To throw in a national park is to apply lipstick.”
The House Natural Resources Committee is expected to vote on Stewart’s bill at a later, as-yet unscheduled time.