Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Exploring the ramifications of designating another Utah monument

Published: Sunday, June 1 2014 12:53 p.m. MDT

Updated: Sunday, June 1 2014 12:53 p.m. MDT

With the recent presidential establishment of a national monument in New Mexico, many Utah officials are concerned that President Obama will designate another monument in Utah, possibly in the Canyonlands area. We explore these concerns.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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With the recent presidential establishment of a national monument in New Mexico, many Utah officials are concerned that President Obama will designate another monument in Utah, possibly in the Canyonlands area. We explore these concerns.

What’s wrong with the president designating a national monument in Utah and is it likely to happen?

Pignanelli: "The public lands are a public stock, which ought to be disposed of to the best advantage for the nation." — President James Monroe

Readers, consider investments in manufacturers of yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags and colonial tricorn hats. If President Obama designates more wilderness protection in Utah, thousands will attend protest rallies in revolutionary garb.

Despite pressure from conservation groups, some educated observers believe the appropriate conditions do not exist to warrant such a presidential decree. Recent designation of monuments in other states had support from the local officials — absent in Utah. So, under this analysis, President Obama is likely to ignore the Beehive State.

Yet, similar dynamics were in play in 1996, but President Bill Clinton ignored them and designated 1.7 million acres in the Escalante monument. This was a gift for the “Big Dawg” — consolidating his environmental base and sticking it to the state that humiliated him with third place in the 1992 elections.

Shrewd politicos believe if the president allows the Keystone pipeline — for political and legacy protection reasons — he may designate a monument in Utah to appease green special-interest groups. As with Clinton, Obama is unpopular in Utah and so he has nothing to lose.

Although the president is receiving pressure from conservation and outdoor recreation organizations, other forces may drive any monument actions in Utah.

Webb: You can barely turn over a shovel of dirt on federal lands without jumping through all sorts of hoops, including lengthy environmental assessments to determine the impact on plants, animals, people, economy, culture, water, archaeological sites and so forth. Numerous public hearings must be held and input received from all stakeholder groups.

So it is outrageous that, with the stroke of a pen, a president can dramatically change — often for political purposes — the designation and use of millions of acres of land, and impact the lives of many citizens, without any study or analysis. The designation law was never intended to be used for massive chunks of land, and it flies in the face of federal laws and regulations requiring due process and careful evaluation of impacts.

I don’t know if Obama will make the designation or not, but every Utahn ought to be outraged if he does.

While a monument designation might upset rural Utahns, what are the political ramifications among Wasatch Front residents who love outdoor recreation?

Pignanelli: Most Utahns are suspicious of the federal government and will punish the party of a president who undertakes unilateral actions that seem unfair. Democrats suffered losses from Clinton’s Escalante designation. A similar move by Obama will motivate many Utah voters to rebuke Democrats. But over time the issue will mellow. Wasatch Front residents care about quality outdoor activities and opportunities throughout the state, certainly as much as oil shale development. The state economy is diversifying and the burgeoning manufacturing recreation industry will continue its demands for environmental protection.

Webb: Wasatch Front residents ought to be just as concerned as our rural neighbors because of the impact on Utah’s economy. Certainly, pristine and beautiful parts of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument deserve the highest degree of protection possible (after proper due diligence and public input). In other parts, however, we ought to be mining coal and drilling for oil and gas. A gigantic monument designation, done on a whim, doesn’t take into account the variety of land uses, including recreation, that should be allowed in different locations.

Could the state manage these federal lands as well or better than the federal government?

Pignanelli: For decades, the feds were viewed as the enlightened forces promoting civil rights, clean air and water, and safer food. However, because of numerous blunders (i.e. Hurricane Katrina, veterans, citizens privacy, health care rollout, etc.) the federal government is the nation’s town drunk (well-meaning but a joke). States are on the cutting edge of reform and innovation. The battle for public land control will not be won by wearing silly costumes, but by demonstrating state competency.

Webb: The state does most things far better than the federal government, and citizens trust state government dramatically more than the federal government. So why should anyone think the federal government can magically manage lands better than the state? The state competently manages a great deal of publicly owned land, including numerous beautiful state parks and a lot of wildlife habitat. We don’t sell them off or put a McDonald’s arch in Goblin Valley.

State land managers get degrees from the same colleges and universities, go to the same conferences and seminars, and read the same literature and best practices as their federal counterparts. Many switch between federal and state jobs during their careers.

Did Kathleen Clarke magically boost her land management skills when she went from being a state land manager to direct the federal BLM? And did she suddenly lose those skills when she came back to Utah?

The federal government is broke, calcified and gridlocked. I guarantee Utah can do better. It is a myth perpetuated by silly environmental groups that only the federal government can properly manage public lands.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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