Grand Staircase National Monument

In 1996, President Clinton created an outcry in western states with the words:

NOW, THEREFORE, I WILLIAM J. CLINTON, President of the United States of America, by the authority vested in me by section 2 of the [Antiquities] Act of June 8, 1906 (34 Stat. 225, 16 U.S.C. 431), do proclaim that there are hereby set apart and reserved as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, for the purpose of protecting the objects identified above, all lands and interests in lands owned or controlled by the United States within the boundaries of the area described on the document entitled “Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument” attached to and forming a part of this proclamation

By presidential proclamation he set nearly 1,700 square miles of Bureau of Land Management lands in Utah off limits with his surprise designation of the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument and, with it, access to over 11 billion tons of recoverable, low sulfur, high btu (energy) coal. Several more such designations followed in what many felt was a War on the West.

A recently revealed Department of Interior “internal working document” has set off similar fire alarms across the West. It identifies BLM lands as potential sites for designation as new national monuments, as possibly meriting “special conservation” status or as targets of “land rationalization”. Unlike a national park or national wildlife refuge, these actions are carried out by the Executive Branch without any need for Congressional approval.

The Department of Interior document in question ­- reportedly drafted at the behest of Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar – identifies more than six times the land area locked up in the Grand Staircase designation and, like it, has the potential to thwart access to a wealth of natural resources including oil, gas, gold and timber. The document’s brief descriptions of the potential national monuments in AZ, CA, CO, MT, NM, OR, UT and WA does not include acreage figures for all of the14 BLM sites. The total for where figures are given is 13,535,000 acres, an area larger than Maryland and Delaware combined. In counties with land bases predominately held by the BLM, eliminating access to natural resources on these lands can be near mortal economic wounds.

For one Nevada site, the document’s narrative justifying its inclusion states that it is “…a center of climate change research…” while for another site it states that the possible national monument location “…contains 30% of the lesser prairie chicken habitat in southeastern New Mexico.” Two of the possible monument sites cover another 1,474,000 acres of Utah. Harkening back to the Clinton era national monument designation, Utah Representative Rob Bishop, the head of the Congressional Western Caucus in the House of Representatives, told his state’s largest paper, “We’ve been burned before, and I want to make sure we’re not burned again.”

While the document’s section addressing possible national monuments has garnered most of the attention, other sections address areas that may be suitable for “Conservation Designations” or fall under the heading “Cost Estimates: High Priority Land Rationalization.” Three areas are identified as possible targets for a conservation designation, one in Wyoming and two in Alaska. If a conservation designation is conferred upon one of the later, Bristol Bay, it could serve as a club for those seeking to stymie development of a mine in Alaska. The ore deposits there are estimated to contain 94 million ounces of gold and 72 billion pounds of copper. Opponents of developing the mine claim it is a threat to Bristol Bay.

Like the monuments and conservation designations, the “land rationalization” efforts would focus on western lands – CA, CO, ID, MT, NV, OR, UT and WY – and include states through which National Historic and Scenic Trails traverse. The document anticipates lands that would augment the trails being targeted with an “aggressive willing seller program”.  For a land rationalization effort in the Upper Green River Valley of Wyoming, the document targets a “…stretch [that] features a small number of very large privately-owned ranches…” By the Interior Department’s own back of envelop calculations, the cost of Federal government absorbing just these Wyoming ranches would be around $2.4 billion.

Why, when we are broke and the Federal government already owns more land than the total area of Mexico and Spain combined, do we need to acquire more? Why do we need more in a state like Wyoming where the Federal Government already owns about half of everything?  How is spending the equivalent of more than 50,000 times the median income of a Wyoming family to rid the state of a few “large private” ranches a good idea? In this economic climate what rationale can the Obama Administration offer to spend tax dollars on these ranches or to lock up land that “contains 30% of the lesser prairie chicken habitat in southeastern New Mexico”? (Not to be confused with land harboring greater prairie chickens or with lesser prairie chicken habitat elsewhere in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.)

In the case of the lesser prairie chicken the document opines that putting this area off limits is the best chance to avoid adding the prairie chicken to the endangered species list, implying that by doing so the burdens of the Endangered Species Act – like putting land off limits – could be avoided.  Elsewhere the document mentions promoting ecotourism and “unique” sailing and sea kayaking opportunities. Perhaps the millions of newly unemployed can spend their free time searching for lesser prairie chickens or sea-kayaking. Westerners are right to ring the alarm bells about War on the West II.