There is a sharp contrast between the intense public debate that preceded President Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears National Monument and President Clinton’s stealth designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument.
When Clinton read the proclamation at the south rim of the Grand Canyon in 1996, scarcely anybody knew what he was about to do. Although the landscape is extraordinary and increasingly valuable on a scientific level, there is validity to the claim that the public was cut out of the process. Utah politicians have made hay for decades by howling over the injustice, yet their actions and those of Congress have validated the monument in several concrete ways that have proven enormously beneficial to Utah.
Shrinking or rescinding the monument now would raise many thorny questions.
The first points of validation seem minor, but are legally important. Congress legislated slight adjustments to the boundaries of the monument shortly after designation, thereby ratifying the current configuration. Changing congressionally set boundaries is not among the very specific powers delegated to the president by the Antiquities Act. Congress has further validated the monument through annual budget appropriations now totaling nearly $100 million.
Because of the “land grab” rhetoric fashionable among monument opponents, it is necessary to mention that monument designations do not federalize any state or private land. Any private parcels captured within the boundaries of a new monument become privileged inholdings that can be enjoyed by the owners in exclusivity or sold for a premium, and the scattered state sections that are inevitably located within the boundaries of western monuments can be traded for far more valuable lands elsewhere.
The second validation of Grand Staircase is quite revealing. Topping the list of Utah politicians’ complaints is that the coal deposits on the Kaiparowits Plateau were “locked up” in the monument. They claim that billions of dollars in revenues were lost to the state education fund. In fact, Andalex Corporation, which had the only viable coal leases, was grandfathered into the monument and given an exclusive opportunity to mine the coal.
Contemporary analyses found that Andalex had planned to mine about $48 million worth of coal annually for 30 years, generating revenues of about $624,000 a year for the state of Utah. Of that annual amount, only about $36,000 in interest could go to the schools, which had at the time a yearly budget of $1.7 billion.
Today, as coal becomes economically uncompetitive, it is necessary to recall that the high-ash Kaiparowits coal is deeply buried and in non-continuous seams. Business analysts always downgraded the resource due to its extraordinary remoteness, huge trucking costs and lack of market. Whatever the internal logic, Andalex was soon happy to have the federal government buy out its leases for just $14 million. There never was a coal bonanza waiting to happen, and that’s truer now than ever.
The final complication for opponents of the monument involves the very real benefits Utah’s school children have realized from Grand Staircase-Escalante. Clinton instructed Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to trade the state lands out of the monument so they would not be trapped without the potential to generate revenue. The final exchange involved trading 200,000 acres of state land in the monument for 177,000 acres of federal lands holding rich hydrocarbon reserves in northeastern Utah.
The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration established the Land Exchange Distribution Account to dole out the proceeds from these state-federal trades. At least 27 Utah counties have since received a total of $441 million.
If President Trump and Utah’s leaders are truly interested in solving problems rather than creating them, they should leave the Grand Staircase monument alone and, instead of attacking Bears Ears, take the opportunity to negotiate a similar land exchange for the state lands enclosed in that monument.
Bill Hedden is the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust and former councilman for Grand County, Utah. He lives in Castle Valley, Utah.
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