How to fix the unintended consequences of Grand Staircase-Escalante

How to fix the unintended consequences of Grand Staircase-Escalante
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On a September morning in 1996, then-Gov. Mike Leavitt of Utah opened the newspaper to read that, with the stroke of a pen, nearly 2 million acres of land in southern Utah had been unilaterally designated as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This unwelcome surprise left rural Utah reeling. More than 20 years later, the designation is still controversial — especially in Kane and Garfield counties.

While the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument designation may have bolstered tourism in the area, this unilateral decision has had a number of unintended consequences. Take ranching, for example. Despite President Clinton’s promise that grazing would remain at historical levels, actual use grazing permits in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument have declined by almost a third.


The ranchers left in this area are facing an uphill battle — struggling to fence wetland areas, maintain roads, or take other necessary measures to ensure the health and safety of their livestock. This has forced cattle off the range and ranching families from the public lands they have worked on for generations. Such is the result when one man with a phone and pen takes a top-down approach to public land management.


We can do better.  

Flash forward to the day after President TrumpDonald John TrumpHR McMaster says president's policy to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is 'unwise' Cast of 'Parks and Rec' reunite for virtual town hall to address Wisconsin voters Biden says Trump should step down over coronavirus response MORE’s historic decision to shrink the monument. Rep. Chris StewartChristopher (Chris) Douglas StewartAtlanta Wendy's 911 call the night of Rayshard Brooks's death released Tyler Perry offers to pay for funeral of Rayshard Brooks Current, former NHL players form diversity coalition to fight intolerance in hockey MORE (R-Utah) introduced the Grand Staircase Escalante Enhancement Act – securing the future of the region’s public lands and including the voices of those most impacted by their management. Presidential action, by nature, is fleeting. What can be done by one executive can just as easily be undone by the next individual occupying the White House. The establishment, expansion and reduction of national monuments are no exception.

This situation relegates national monuments to little more than political footballs being punted back and forth between presidential administrations. Nobody wins in this scenario: not the environment, not the archaeological resources, and certainly not the people of Kane and Garfield counties.

Stewart’s bill creates certainty for these public lands through the legislative process — driven by locals — and a bottom-up approach. Countless hours meeting with locals and their elected officials produced the boundaries and management in this legislation.

Once passed, the Grand Staircase Escalante Enhancement Act will take this a step further by establishing the first locally managed national park in our country’s history. A team made up of representatives from Kane and Garfield counties will be influential voices that manage the park as well as the Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits, and Escalante Canyons national monuments. This move recognizes the importance of this land to those who live closest to it and puts them in the driver’s seat to make decisions on how to protect and preserve this beautiful area.    

Stewart’s bill provides the opportunity to get management of the Grand Staircase Escalante region right. Local input and the permanency of this legislation helps those communities closest to the land adequately prepare for and reap the benefits from the new designations. It also provides locals the opportunity to demonstrate that protection of the land and the needs of local economies are not mutually exclusive. Tourism and preservation will continue in the area, but traditional uses, like grazing, will return to bolster the economy.

As the West’s economy continues to evolve and more emphasis is placed on outdoor recreation, the Grand Staircase Escalante Enhancement Act serves as a sensible solution to meet new economic demands while working through the unintended consequences of unilateral land management decisions. When the voices of locals are heard and represented, tension is defused, multiple uses of the land ensue and economies thrive.

This is the type of solution we all should agree on — and should pass with bipartisan support through Congress. It’s not about left or right, it’s about locals becoming an integral part of public land management.  

Matthew Anderson is federalism policy director at Sutherland Institute. He heads the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of Sutherland Institute.