Tribune Editorial: Why are you shrinking our monuments, Mr. President?

There is no good reason for shrinking Utah’s national monuments.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune The view from Rock Springs Point along the west edge of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Saturday February 18, 2012.

Dear Mr. President,

Welcome to Utah.

We hope you will enjoy your brief visit to our state Monday, meeting with our elected officials and, we have been led to understand, making those officeholders very happy by announcing that large swaths of Utah’s unique and beautiful public lands will be removed from their current status as national monuments.

Here is what we want to know about that: Why?

What possible reason could there be for cutting the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in half and reducing the new Bears Ears National Monument to two small slivers of the land preserved just last year by your predecessor?

The land is owned by the federal government and held in trust for, legally, all the people of the United States and, morally, all the people of the world. Much of it is possessed of remarkable natural beauty and, especially in the case of Bears Ears, is held sacred by the Navajo and other Native American nations. Taking back the prize that those native peoples worked on, so long and so hard, will of course be seen as nothing more than a gratuitous slap in their face.

In the 20 years of its existence, meanwhile, Grand Staircase has inspired the growth of numerous small businesses that have have come to thrive by serving the many tourists who journey there from around the globe. Changing the status quo that those livelihoods have been based on serves no purpose.

We know what you have been told about these monuments and their history. Some of it is true.

The creation of the Grand Staircase monument was indeed sprung upon the people of Utah, and their elected officials, by the Clinton administration in what, to all appearances, was a pander to environmentally minded voters — in Arizona.

But arguments that the designation devastated the local economy are without merit. There is no profitable market for the coal that lies there. Not in a world where the dirty fuel is rapidly losing its free-market value. And, as we said, the eco-tourist-based economy that has sprung up in and around the monument does not deserve this blow.

And you have doubtless heard at great length about how the process leading up to the designation of Bears Ears has split the community and that not even all the Navajo in the area supported it. But the duly elected representatives of five nations officially back the monument, and those who felt otherwise had years of process and public hearings to make their wishes known.

If there were great untapped resources — oil, gas, coal, grazing allotments — that had been taken off the table by the designations, this might be a different argument. But there are not.

Even under monument status, both areas do and will provide opportunities for responsible mineral extraction and grazing. It would just need to be done carefully, in ways that do not overwhelm the larger, and eternal, spiritual, aesthetic and restorative value of the land.

Any responsible, humane and long-term view of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments should lead to the conclusion that there is nothing to be gained, and potentially much to be lost, by removing their designations. And even if you do, Mr. President, the matter will immediately, and for years to come, be tied up in court, wasting much time and money that could have been spent truly protecting the land and improving the lives of both those who live near it and those who will benefit, even if they never go there, from having it protected for future generations.

Utah is a public lands state, Mr. President. Even those leaders who oppose these monuments know that, and often express great pride in our national parks and forests. Yet those same leaders have wasted millions in taxpayer dollars in pointless lawsuits that deny that same aspect of our state. And they have ruined more economic activity than they have created, running off the Outdoor Retailers conventions and alienating the most prominent of the recreation entrepenures.

Your duty, Mr. President, is to protect the natural beauty of our state. Not to put it under glass, untouchable. But to preserve it for all time.

Thank you.