SALT LAKE CITY — It may have happened 14 years ago, but the fury over President Bill Clinton's surprise creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument remains with state and local officials who still mourn the "loss" of nearly 1.9 million acres.
For that reason, many area county officials have looked at cobbling together their own land conservation plans that set aside wilderness, reasoning that if they do it first, the federal government will have no reason to swoop in with an arbitrary designation.
As a model, many have looked to the Washington County lands bill that passed last year. Pushed by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, the measure established two national conservation areas to protect the endangered desert tortoise and other vulnerable species and carved out 256,338 acres of wilderness areas in Washington County.
"In the aftermath of that bill, a number of counties have been looking at a similar process to try to resolve the wilderness debate on a negotiated basis," said John Andrews, associate director of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).
Such monument designations not only set industries such as mining, gas exploration and cattle ranching on their heels, but also trap SITLA lands, which are supposed to be developed to produce revenue for Utah's public schools and some of its state-owned universities.
The trust lands have been historically problematic because of the way they were created at statehood. Four sections of each 36-section township were designated trust lands, freckling the state with tracts that weren't conducive to development. Consolidating some of those lands through sales and trades has been one of the SITLA objectives for some time.
Andrews said SITLA had 176,000 acres captured in the Grand Staircase monument designation and another 300,000 acres that were off limits for development because they were in national parks or monuments or Native American Indian reservations. In a process often marred by stalled negotiations and setbacks, Andrews said the trust lands administration by 1999 was able to "trade out" those lands and also get a $58 million revenue boost.
When a U.S. Department of Interior memo was "leaked" earlier this year about the possible creation of more than a dozen new national monuments — including two in Utah — the howls of outrage began again.
"A monument designation is kind like an atomic bomb and the concern was why the president would do that if there are local efforts to come up with a consensus," Andrews said.
Those local planning efforts are far more palatable than what some state and local officials say is the far-reaching net cast by the Red Rock Wilderness Act, pushed for more than 20 years with the support of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club.
Sponsored by a New York Democrat, the bill would designate 9.4 million acres of Bureau of Land Management parcels — or one sixth of all the land in Utah — as wilderness. Such a designation would prevent commercial development, ban motorized vehicles and prohibit road building or oil and gas development.
"When new wilderness is created, it creates major problems for us because we can't get access to our lands and there isn't any possibility of economic development," Andrews said. "If you look at the Red Rock bill, that would capture over a million acres of school trust lands. Our total holdings are 3.5 million acres. If we lose almost a third of our portfolio, it is going to have an impact."
SITLA's investment fund for the first time reached the $1 billion threshold in December, and each year it distributes between $20 million and $30 million, mostly in interest earnings, to Utah schools.
For that reason, SITLA has been on the ground in Piute, San Juan, Emery and Beaver counties as potential land conservation plans are being discussed.
Andrews said those negotiations have included a wide variety of people with a vested interest in the process, including local farmers, ranchers, elected officials and environmental groups.
In some counties, progress has inched forward slowly; in others, it has come screeching to a near standstill.
"What we see is there is a split of opinion among the environmental community," Andrews said. "There are some who are very open to negotiation and some potential compromise on the theory that something is better than nothing. There are others who want 100 percent — they want exactly what they want and nothing less. At that point, it really isn't a negotiation."
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has been involved in many of those negotiations, something director Scott Groene said is critical for their success.
"We are always open to talk to anyone who is serious about protecting wilderness," he said. "It should be clear by now that unless the Utah Wilderness Coalition, which includes SUWA, is part of the agreement, that the proposals will be stopped in D.C."
In San Juan County, Bennett hosted a series of town meetings to gather input on a conservation plan.
"We're very much in favor of doing this county by county, which is certainly better than a regional or national approach by proponents who do not live here, who don't see this as their backyard," said Commissioner Lynn Stephens.
Stephens said Bennett was driving the planning process, reaching out to environmentalists and others for input.
"I don't think we want to be in the driver's seat," Stephens said. "We just want this to be handled well."
With Bennett's defeat during the May GOP convention, that planning process has shifted into a reluctant holding pattern while commissioners and others await the passage of November's general election.
"We think this process is credible and valid," Stephens said. "We'd like to proceed on with as much continuity as we can and would like very much to involve" Sen. Orrin Hatch's office.
A two dozen-member working committee in Beaver County has for years been trying to craft a land conservation plan, but the effort has since stalled due to lack of community support, said County Commission chair Donald Willden.
Willden, who took part in the working group, said some of the key members who held the committee together have since died.
"I still think we were doing the right thing, but some didn't feel it was worth fighting that battle at the time."
Willden is firm in the belief that a ground-up, locally driven conservation plan is the best approach, even if it is difficult and time-consuming to reach an agreement.6 comments on this story
"Land conservation is not a one-size-fits-all proposal. We decided to let this sit for a bit and come back later to get a working group together."Similarly, in Emery County, there are efforts to run legislation to designate some wilderness. Ray Petersen, the county's public land administrator, said officials are still in the process of identifying those potential wilderness areas and are working with the staffs of all Utah's congressional delegation to keep them informed.
"Monument designations cause us great concern. They were considering the San Rafael Swell (as a possible new national monument) and if you look at the Grand Staircase-Escalante situation, we know this is not a new idea. It is out there and it might happen."