After President Donald Trump reduced the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Rep. Chris Stewart proposed a bill that would, in part, turn a piece of it into Utah’s sixth national park.
State lawmakers suggested Thursday that they’d rather see it become Utah’s newest state park.
“We do as good of a job, if not better, on our state parks,” said Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab. “It would be a better opportunity for us, as Utahns, to present our state.”
It would also mean Utah controlling and managing the land, not the federal government. That made it an easy sell for the Republican-weighted Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, which voted unanimously Thursday to back Stewart’s proposal with its own draft of a state resolution— but with the switch away from another national park.
The commission will propose instead creating a 25,000-acre Escalante Canyons State Park — about a quarter of the size of Stewart’s plan for a national park but with the same name — among the slickrock slot canyons that drain into the Escalante River in southern Utah. If approved next session, it would join the list of 43 other state parks in Utah.
“It would be our land,” said Noel, who’s retiring from his seat this year. “They can’t change that. They can’t come back and create a monument on that land.”
Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, co-chairman of the commission, added that he believes the state has a “good track record of management.”
“If it’s a park, it’s a park,” he shrugged at Stewart, who sat before the panel to give an update on the status of his Escalante bill. The conservative congressman encouraged the legislators to pursue that alternative vision but said he wouldn’t abandon his proposal because it’s about more than just the park.
Stewart’s bill, which was introduced but hasn’t seen much action this session, would also codify the shrunken boundaries of the national monument, essentially writing into law Trump’s proclamation slicing Grand Staircase into three parts and cutting out nearly 1 million acres. It would stop, too, future presidents from expanding the designation back to its original size — or from making it bigger.
“We’d have this political pingpong,” he said. “We want to legislatively define these new boundaries so it’s not bouncing back and forth.”
A handful of conservationists spoke out against Stewart’s “Grand Staircase Escalante Enhancement Act” on Thursday, calling it a ploy to bypass the pending litigation challenging Trump’s authority to trim a monument after his cuts to both Grand Staircase and the former Bears Ears designation. And, the opponents said, it’s all an effort to open more land to mineral and oil extraction.
Ashley Soltysiak, director of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, said in most cases the organization would support a national or state park. But Stewart’s proposal, she said, is a ruse to make it look like activists don’t want to preserve the space or attract more tourists.
The group would prefer to see Grand Staircase returned to its former monument boundaries.
“There’s a huge net loss to the people of Utah,” Soltysiak said. “These lands are part of a national monument that belongs to all Americans.”
Noel challenged Soltysiak, calling the Sierra Club a group of liars seeking “to inflame the public” and “create hate and animosity.” He said there would be no extraction before a thorough archaeological review of a site — so the land is not under any sort of threat.
Leland Pollock, chairman of the Garfield County Commission, added that he believes the land is in better shape now than it was under the larger designation. He said before half of it wasn’t being visited by tourists. A park, too, would help draw more people there.