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Ruling rejects local opposition to Grand Staircase plan

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue

Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, April 14 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Grosvenor Arch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is shown in 2003. The area was made a national monument in 1996.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Utah conservatives thought it was bad enough when President Bill Clinton swooped into Utah and created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, wresting land from local control.

Now, 13 years later, a federal appellate court is rubbing salt in the wound with a Monday ruling that rejects local claims that the monument's management plan interferes with access to roads and water rights.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver shot down contentions by Kane and Garfield counties that the Bureau of Land Management's land-use plan for 1.9 million acres unfairly infringes on that access, saying such assertions were overly vague and failed to prove actual harm. The same ruling torpedoed claims by the Kane County Water Conservancy District that water rights were stripped away.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who is also the general manager of the Kane water district, blasted the ruling, saying it emboldens the "faceless, nameless, unaccountable bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., who thinks they can hold sway over a sovereign state."

He added that such "arbitrary and capricious" rulings by federal justices are frustrating.

"I am totally disgusted with our federal-court system, the appeals, the processes you have to go through. It's just insane and a continuing saga of everything that has gone on down here," Noel said.

Environmental groups, however, lauded the decision, describing it as a big win that shores up protections for the area.

"We are very excited by this," said Mark Clemens, manager of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club. "This is an endorsement of a careful and conservative approach to managing public lands."

The management plan, adopted 10 years ago, came under challenge by the board of commissioners in both counties and the water district, who decried the plan for its creation of a transportation system that they said was done in "willful blindness," ignoring historic use of local roads.

The counties and district also complained that the plan failed to take into account other local uses of the area and essentially "trapped" the district's water rights within the monument.

The 2005 lawsuit was tossed by a federal judge two years later, after the intervention of several environmental groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Earthjustice.

The ruling did hint at some advice for opponents to the plan, in a concurring opinion offered by Chief Judge Robert H. Henry. He wrote that the counties and the district are not prohibited from resurrecting their challenges to the monument plans if they cite specific examples of "particularized injury."

He also mused on the contentious, storied conflict pitching federal interests against local control.

"The American West is a looming space, and the history of its pioneers' tangled relationship with Washington bureaucrats, and the resulting animosity, still looms large. The historian Bernard DeVoto summed up the traditional Western attitude toward the federal government as, 'Get out, and give us more money.' "

Noel late Monday predicted that the fight was far from over and that the ruling would only help spark a new "Sagebrush Rebellion" by people in Utah who want to retain more control over public lands.

E-MAIL: amyjoi@desnews.com

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