Grand Staircase-Escalante: A conservation triumph is headed for future as playground for industry


In September 1996, President Clinton stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and looked gingerly northward into hostile Republican territory in Utah as he signed a proclamation that created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on 1.9 million acres of Utah’s public lands.

In doing so, the president protected what was left of the Escalante rivershed above Lake Powell — the canyon system that formed the western anchor of a legendary national park proposal in the 1930s. He acknowledged the scientific importance of the giant elevation gradient, with cliff-barricade risers and plateau treads, christened by pioneer geologists the “Grand Staircase.” And he ended a 30-year debate about whether we should strip-mine coal on the pristine Kaiparowits Plateau.

Or so we believed.

{mosads}Clinton’s proclamation acknowledged geologic and cultural treasures first noted 150 years ago by geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell. The monument’s rocks provide “one of the best and most continuous records of Late Cretaceous terrestrial life on Earth,” as the monument proclamation puts it. Scientists find new dinosaurs nearly every time they visit — notably in the Kaiparowits Formation, a fossil locality so rich that Grand Staircase turns out to be the best place on earth to study the extinction of the dinosaurs.  

Clinton made the monument big enough to guarantee sufficient space for genetic banking, speciation, and multiple migration corridors. He created a gigantic natural laboratory, acting on the authority of the scientists who need multiple habitats for their research (a faith since verified, as the monument has yielded a wealth of new data and discoveries).

Social scientists have learned that monument visitors revel in that same bigness. They rank the vast scale of the monument as its primary attraction — a chance to explore on their own, excited by a sense of discovery and adventure much easier to achieve here than in a more intensely managed national park.

Grand Staircase has proven to be an amazingly productive act of conservation. It also turns out to be good for businesses in local communities. Conserving public lands helps to safeguard and highlight amenities that draw new residents, tourists, and businesses. Communities bordering the monument have seen increases in population, jobs, personal income, and per capita income that mirror other western counties with national monuments or protected lands.

But none of this mattered to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who for 20 years kept fanning the embers of his resentment. Hatch hated PresClinton’s executive order because Clinton acted in the national interest without regard to the libertarian states-rights passions of Utah politicians.

When Donald Trump was elected president, Hatch and his fellow members of the Utah delegation bellowed at the new president for months about how much they hated Grand Staircase, just as they wailed about President Obama’s newly proclaimed Bears Ears National Monument. They drew new maps based on pipe dreams of fossil fuel extraction, and they ignored the will of millions of American citizens who wrote to the secretary of the Interior, asking him to leave our monuments be.

Trump acted on Hatch’s anger in December 2017 and reduced Grand Staircase by half and Bears Ears by 85 percent. He created management chaos and legal confusion, for seemingly no other reason than to please Hatch.

And so on the 22 anniversary of the creation of Grand Staircase, the American people find themselves defending what needed no defense. A beloved and successful national monument has been reduced to incoherent fragments. And while the legal challenges to Trump’s actions work their way through the courts, the Bureau of Land Management is ramming through hastily prepared management plans that open up formerly protected lands to development and desecration.  The BLM’s aim is transparent. Their preferred alternative for Grand Staircase conserves “the least land area for physical, biological, and cultural resources … and is the least restrictive to energy and mineral development.”

In the proposed plan the BLM recklessly opens the former monument to “casual collection” of fossils.” Bone beds with immense scientific potential are recommended for oil, gas, and coal leasing. The plan provides for no closures to destructive motor vehicle use. Paleontologists—and humanity—will lose irreplaceable scientific resources.

The new plan poses no barriers to privatizing public lands, and we know the BLM under the current administration is vulnerable to personal and political pressure as never before.

Department of Interior documents reveal the truth behind the push to reduce the monument by Hatch and his compatriots — to turn these one-of-a-kind wildlands over to the fossil fuel industry. The new plan deems more than 90 percent of the monument suitable for coal extraction. Just two-tenths of a percent of the former monument would be withdrawn from development.

A national monument managed for science, recreation, and conservation will be transformed into a gigantic playground for industry.

In April, a group of 16 senators asked the BLM to take no action until the courts judge the legality of Trump’s dismantling of the monument. The public has consistently called for protection, and citizens have one last chance to comment on the plan through Nov. 15.

The BLM should listen to both citizens and Congress and manage the full expanse of the original monument under the existing Grand Staircase-Escalante plan. These public lands are too special to sacrifice. Let’s give the monument a proper anniversary gift and stand down from this unnecessary drive to destroy a national treasure.

Stephen Trimble’s latest book is “Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands.” He serves on the board of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, the “friends” organization for the monument.

Tags Conservation Donald Trump Environment National Monument Orrin Hatch Parks Stephen Trimble

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