SALT LAKE CITY — A push by environmental groups for a possible national monument designation along the Arizona Strip is provoking outrage among Utah politicians who say it will kill ranching jobs, permanently extinguish any uranium mining in the area and possibly derail the Lake Powell pipeline.
They also say the proposal is a harkening to the 1996 designation by then-President Bill Clinton, who made the sweeping declaration to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, closing off for development 1.7 million acres of coal-rich country in southern Utah.
Clinton made the announcement with virtually no warning to Utah's elected leaders — a move that came during a re-election campaign, similar to the election timing facing President Obama.
Presidents have the authority to designate new national monuments under provisions of the 1906 Antiquities Act. Western congressional delegations say such power usurps their authority in public land designations.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he remembers the stinging anger of Utahns after the Clinton designation and vowed to fight any hint that environmental groups have President Obama's ear on this issue.
"I've told the Obama Administration that this proposal is an absolute outrage to every single Utahn," he said, "and I will not sit idly by as this president continues to take its orders from its East Coast environmentalist allies at the expense of Utah."
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and the congressional representative for that region, said monument designations are not an appropriate or productive avenue for public lands management.
"When you hear the word monument it kind of sets off alarms," he said.
Groups that include the Grand Canyons Wildlands Council and the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a proposal to the Bureau of Land Management in St. George. The document calls for the creation of the Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument, which would take in 1.7 million acres, taking in House Rock Valley, the Kaibab Plateau and abutting the Western boundary of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. It would envelope Kaibab National Forest.
The sparsely populated area is a mix of towering cliffs and canyons, grasslands, forest and desert that is popular with hunters, ranchers, hikers and other recreationists.
The proposal would allow for a seamless connection between Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Vermillion Cliffs national monuments, which the groups said would be important in fostering the protection of critical wildlife corridors.
Other conservation goals outlined in the proposal include protection of old-growth forests from logging, the ability to reduce the density of primitive roads and to scale back or eliminate grazing the groups contend have caused the degradation of the environment.
Mike Quigley of The Wilderness Society said the proposed creation of a national monument for the area is one of many "protection" solutions on the table for consideration and no formal proposal has been submitted.
Still, the document was hand delivered to the St. George offices of the BLM, where it has been "passed along," said agency spokeswoman Rachel Tueller. She said such designations are outside the purview of the agency, but land-use proposals submitted to the BLM are not uncommon.
"It's not out of the ordinary," she said.
Kim Crumbo, the conservation director of the Grand Canyons Wildland Council, said such a designation by Obama would constitute a "fairly important legacy proclamation."
And that type of permanency is what has locals worried and angry.
"It is a real slap in the face," said Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab. "I look at this as the same thing they did on the Grand Staircase, seven or eight months out before an election."
Although the land under this proposal is in Arizona, Noel said the economic impacts are far greater to Utah residents who make a living grazing their cattle in that country during the winter months or who operate uranium mining companies that would be permanently banned under such a designation.
"It's a nasty deal," he said, adding that any monument declaration could derail the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline project, which would traverse a section of northern Arizona before delivering 70,000 acre-feet of water to St. George.
Noel and others say it is a move by the monument backers to gauge President Obama's support of the environmental movement.
"It's a move by them to say if you want to get our base out behind you, you have to do this, this and that," Noel said. "Utah is the sacrificial lamb — Utah and Arizona."
Rep. Rob Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said any monument designation for that area would be a "travesty" that upends a negotiated wilderness agreement that stems back decades. Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert, said the governor has met repeatedly with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and has expressed Utah is in no mood for "surprises."
While Washington County Commissioner Dennis Drake said locals know the watershed protection proposal is just that —a proposal — they are still mustering forces to ward off any chance it gains steam.
"We are going to prepare what we can to offset their proposal," he said, adding that it compares in some ways to the Grand Staircase-Escalante surprise of 1996.
"I wish I could say I don't believe it will happen and I'd like to believe they will not do it a second time," he said. "But who knows? It is one of those guessing situations, especially when politics comes into it."
Contributing: The Associated Press
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