We learned yesterday that 14 senators support the creation of a new national monument in southeastern Utah. They sent a letter to President Barack Obama requesting he use the power granted to him under the Antiquities Act to declare greater Canyonlands a national monument and expand protection from 337 thousand acres to 1.8 million acres, a more than fivefold increase. Earlier this year the president foreshadowed such an action when he said in his State of the Union address, “I’ll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations.”
News of another national monument by presidential fiat should send shivers down Utahns’ spines. And it’s not because these lands aren’t worthy of protection. They are. It’s because people, particularly those closest to these lands, deserve a voice in the process. Without meaningful dialogue, presidents often make choices without full information and through the single lens of political gain. Even worse, they contribute to the public land wars that divide this state and stand in the way of true protection.
Utahns are familiar with this abuse of power. In 1996, President Bill Clinton designated an area the size of Rhode Island, Delaware and Washington, D.C., as a national monument without any discussion with the people most affected by the decision. None. The process was a sneak attack that set back Utah-federal land relations 20 years.
I was working in the Utah governor’s office at the time of this designation. It didn’t make me proud of my president or my country. Here’s what I witnessed:
Gov. Leavitt learned about the monument just nine days before the designation in a story in the Washington Post. That’s just wrong, regardless of your political affiliation or your opinion about land preservation. Governors deserve to be part of the discussion when major federal actions impact the people they were elected to serve and represent.
Within days Leavitt secured an emergency meeting in the White House with then-chief of staff Leon Panetta. In this meeting, Leavitt was told that the train had left the station and could not be stopped. At 2 a.m. the next morning, President Bill Clinton called Leavitt. They had a 30-minute conversation about the process. Leavitt, with his skill and knowledge, secured meaningful concessions for our state but could not stop the train.
Twelve hours later Vice President Al Gore stood at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and announced the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In just nine days a chunk of land larger than some states had been forever changed. And, they didn’t even have the courage to announce the designation in Utah. They knew they had wronged the state.
Don’t get me wrong — I have a longstanding and deep affection for Utah’s extraordinary natural places. I met my husband in Arches National Park. I have backpacked in Escalante, Canyonlands and Zions. As recently as this summer, I climbed to the top of Notch Peak and camped at the foothills of Utah’s Deep Creek Mountains. I love Utah’s natural areas and want them to be protected. I think most Utahns feel the same.
But how we protect these lands matters too. The public deserves to be a part of the discussion. Land designations affect real people and their voices matter. When presidents circumvent a public process, they cause other problems.
I compliment Congressman Bishop and other members of the Utah Congressional Delegation for taking a strong stand on this issue. Gov. Herbert has said that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told him, “We will not do this.” Herbert should use his friendship with the secretary to make sure she holds to her word.
Greater Canyonlands is a stunning natural area. The ancient cliff dwellings, redrock mesas and sacred Navajo lands deserve our reverence and protection. But there is a better way to protect them. Please, Mr. President, involve Utahns in this process.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.