National park designations are more democratic than national monument designations. They require an act of Congress, meaning a consensus among the people’s elected representatives. Monuments may be designated by presidents without any consensus.
But that doesn’t mean the proposal by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, to create a new national park within the newly designated Escalante Canyons Monument should be a slam-dunk. Too many questions remain.
The largest of these concerns is funding. The Park Service has an approximately $12 billion maintenance backlog, and yet visitations to Utah’s parks continue to grow. The Spectrum in St. George recently reported that Zion’s National Park has seen nearly 4.4 million visitors already this year, which represents a 4 percent increase over the previous year. Bryce Canyon has seen a record 2.5 million visitors. Capitol Reef set a record of 1.1 million visitors already in October.
At many parks, facilities are deteriorating and rangers are understaffed. At Zion’s, shuttle buses are overcrowded and private cars back up along roadways, leading to air pollution concerns.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently proposed a dramatic increase in entry fees to help defray this backlog, a suggestion that immediately was attacked from many sides, but without many helpful alternate funding suggestions.
Utah’s five current national parks attract about $1 billion annually in direct visitor spending, but the worry is people are loving these parks to death.
With Congress uncertain as to how to meet the mounting backlog of needs, is it really wise to add one more national park the nation can’t afford?
In asking this, we recognize one of the supreme ironies at work in this debate. All the discussion concerning monuments, including the president’s visit to Utah this month to shrink and divide two of them, leads to greater interest from tourists. As a recent report by the Deseret News’ Jesse Hyde made clear, people already are coming to see these wonders that previously were little discussed and seldom seen.
And when they come, there are no visitors centers or rangers to guide them.
The debate over what used to be the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments likely will rage for years. President Trump’s declaration of revised and smaller monuments already is being challenged in court, and a final resolution may not come for years.
Stewart’s proposal would indeed provide a sense of permanence to a part of the Escalante monument. So would a proposal by Stewart and fellow Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and John Curtis to congressionally designate Trump’s new monuments and to detail land uses.
Federal law, specifically the Antiquities Act of 1906, gives presidents too much power to designate monuments without a democratic process. These new efforts would provide such a process.
However, the issues surrounding the monuments Trump reorganized, including their boundaries, has become so politicized we doubt such congressional action would bring an end to the controversies or the protests. Nor would they necessarily keep a future president from making designations that once again expand the boundaries.
With Americans and foreigners visiting parks and monuments in record numbers, what the nation needs is a serious discussion about its natural wonders and how best to cherish and preserve them. That will require more than just designating them as special places. It will require serious funding and planning.