Rep. Chris Stewart’s Escalante Canyons National Park and Preserve bill is a sham, and he knows it.
Disingenuously, he wants 2nd Congressional District voters to believe that he cares for the future of our public lands right before the November election. This is not true. Stewart is no friend to America’s public lands.
When this bill was first introduced in 2017, in the days after President Donald Trump’s disastrous gutting of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National monuments, it had one predominant goal: hastily making the presidential proclamation permanent, eliminating critical protections and multiple use management from millions of acres. This presidential action is still being litigated, and legal scholars across the nation believe this exceeded Trump’s authority.
Because Trump and Stewart and other elected officials chose not to listen to Utahns, they did not realize the largest rollback of public land protections would not be popular here. In advance of Trump’s unprecedented actions, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called for public comment. Nearly 3 million Americans raised their voices; 99% opposed any reduction to our national monuments, and in Utah, nine in 10 comments urged that our monuments remain intact.
Utah’s elected officials were on the fringe then, and they are still there.
This is a wolf in national park’s clothing. Unlike any other national park, Escalante Canyons would not be managed by the National Park Service, nor be managed as a national park. The management team would consist primarily of county commissioners from Garfield and Kane counties, and would give 100,000 acres of formerly national monument lands to the state of Utah to be made available for oil and gas leases.
This bill expressly promotes grazing along the Escalante River, reopening grazing allotments that were bought out over 20 years ago, after a rancher was nearly killed in a fall trying to tend his cattle in the icy winter. This is a world-class canyon destination, with more recreationists visiting every year. Considering that over 90% of Grand Staircase-Escalante is open to grazing, this bill is an unnecessary invitation to human and cattle confrontations that no one wants.
The Escalante River is the last free-flowing tributary of the Colorado River and is extremely vulnerable to climate change. This bill would remove critical protections on this important riparian habitat and put its fate in the county commissioners who are vocal opponents of public land and environmental protections writ large.
In the days after the first introduction of this bill in 2017, 700 letters were submitted to the public lands subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee opposing this action. Half those letters were from residents of the gateway communities this bill would directly impact. Not even the influence of the then-chair of the House Natural Resources, Utah’s Rep. Rob Bishop, could advance this bill. It never made it out of committee because of its blatant intentions, and it certainly won’t advance now.
Utahns want an end to the constant attacks against public lands and the divisions they create throughout the state. We want our leaders to protect our limited natural resources and make strides in mitigating the damage of climate change we see around us every day.
Utahns need leadership that brings a diversity of voices to the table for respectful and productive dialogue, not vanity bills like this Grand Staircase giveaway. This bill was a failure to listen local residents in 2017, and it’s a failure today.
Stewart thinks that after a career of degrading our public lands, he can sneak in deceptive language on the eve on an election. Too bad we already know who he is.
Nicole Croft is a writer living in Escalante.