Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Utah monuments

We Utahns can relax, for now. The feds say they aren't sneaking around behind our backs, plotting a land grab of epic proportions.

However, the Interior Department is considering two areas in Utah as future national monuments. Since they are already mostly public lands, managed by the federal government, that's hardly a land grab. But setting aside these starkly beautiful areas as national monuments would have a huge impact on Utahns.

The two are San Rafael Swell, a nearly 3,000-square-mile dome mostly in Emery County bordered by Castle Dale, Green River, Price and Hanksville; and Cedar Mesa, a 400-square-mile area of San Juan County noted for its Native American archaeological sites. With the exception of some parcels owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, they are not state-owned. But they are used for grazing and are popular recreation sites.

Since a department memo listing the two Utah sites as possible monuments surfaced last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Gov. Gary Herbert have talked. Herbert says he is confident Interior won't move ahead without first laying some groundwork with locals. Salazar says he will meet with the governor's Balanced Resources Council, and the governor plans to have conversations with Salazar's top deputy and the head of the Bureau of Land Management, which now oversees the two tracts.

The president of the United States has the power under the Antiquities Act to
make such designations without an act of Congress and without asking permission of the people who live in the area. Still, we hope President Barack Obama and Salazar would not follow the example of former President Bill Clinton.

In 1996 the Clinton administration denied it was planning to establish a huge area of south-central Utah as a national monument -- right up until the president announced that 1.9 million acres of public land in Utah had been set aside as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Utah officials are still fuming over that deception and the fact Clinton sought no advice at all from them regarding the impacts to local residents. And rightly so. Besides simple courtesy, a collaborative process involving state and federal officials, local residents and county commissions would no doubt provide information that could help decide the boundaries of a national monument, the timing of the designation and other important details.

The president shouldn't take a heavy-handed approach just because he can.

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