In much of the nation, “monument” is an innocuous word, conjuring up images of historical figures cast in bronze or road-side plaques few stop to read.
In the West, though, it’s a fighting word, bound up for years with simmering resentments against the federal government and presidential powers. The feeling dates to the days when, with the stroke of a pen, Theodore Roosevelt declared lands he wished to protect as national monuments under the American Antiquities Act.
A new monument fight erupted this week when Representative Rob Bishop, Republican of Utah, said he had uncovered a “secret” Interior Department memorandum suggesting that the federal government was considering national monument designation for 14 huge blocks of land in nine states from Montana to New Mexico.
A spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior, Kendra Barkoff, said the list was not secret at all, but simply a “very, very, very preliminary,” internal working document resulting from a brainstorming session that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a Democrat and former senator from Colorado, had requested about the lands in the West.
“No decisions have been made about which areas, if any, might merit more serious review and consideration,” Ms. Barkoff said in a statement.
But the word “secret,” especially when applied to the possible doings of far-away federal bureaucrats, is right up there with “monument” in its ability to unleash vitriol among Western conservatives. In 1996, President Bill Clinton created the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah with a surprise announcement that still resonates across the region as a symbol of government powers, or what critics call the abuse of those powers.
The new Interior Department memorandum, people in both parties said, has reopened a wound from those days that never quite healed.
“Given the lingering frustration felt by many Utahns, following the 1996 ‘stroke of the pen’ monument designation, it is totally inappropriate for this federal agency to even have preliminary discussions without involving the stakeholders on the ground,” said Representative Jim Matheson, Democrat of Utah, a state that had two of the possible new monuments on the list, the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa.
In Montana, an area of unplowed grassland called the Northern Prairie was listed on the Interior Department memorandum, discussed as a possible home for a new national bison range. But the state’s representative at large, Denny Rehberg, a Republican, said in a statement, “The Antiquities Act was never intended as an end-run around the will of the people nor as a land-grab device for East Coast politicians.”
Ms. Barkoff at the Interior Department said in an interview that Mr. Salazar, as Colorado’s attorney general, United States senator and secretary of the interior, had a history of seeking consensus, and that any discussion of monument designation would be open to public and Congressional involvement.
A spokesman for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a conservation group, said the appearance of secrecy in monument talks had melded with ideological opposition to the Obama administration — widespread in a deeply Republican part of the country.
“I don’t think it’s as much about the specifics of the land issues as it is pure ideological concerns,” said the group’s executive director, Scott Groene. “There’s already been a great fury going on in this state, and it’s hard to imagine that this really changes any of that.”
The fury is nothing new. In 1969, for example, the town of Boulder, Utah, passed a resolution changing its name to Johnson’s Folly, and predicted the town’s demise after President Lyndon B. Johnson added thousands of acres to Arches and Capitol Reef National Monuments, which were both later designated national parks by Congress.
The town later reverted to its original name, and on its Web site the Boulder Business Group now proudly calls the town the “gateway to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.”
Representative Bishop, who was teaching history and government in a high school in northern Utah when that monument was created in 1996, also held out the possibility that cooler heads and calmer discussions could prevail on land protection in the West. The prerequisite, he said, is transparency and genuine dialogue. If Westerners think there is a foregone conclusion, hostility to more national monuments will be unavoidable.
“If they do things in an open and transparent way and involve everyone, then there’s no need for yelling and screaming,” Mr. Bishop said. “Do it the right way, and we can work it out.”