Earlier this month, I drove my family through the Colorado National Monument, just outside Grand Junction. We marveled at the sheer cliffs, the tall monolithic rock structures and the colors that seemed to dance in the sunlight. We hiked some trails and admired the vistas.
I couldn’t help wonder whether the 20,500-acre site could have been designated today without protests and controversy.
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But then I studied its history. President William Howard Taft created the monument with the stroke of a pen in 1911 because Congress couldn’t come to an agreement on whether to make it a national park.
The American West, with its unparalleled natural wonders, its generous reserves of energy resources and its vast tracts of federally owned land, is unlikely ever to reach a final settlement of the contentious issues involved in managing that land — at least not as long as politics fails to broker compromises. Too many competing interests lay claim to it.
Even giving presidents dictatorial powers over monuments hasn’t settled much.
When Taft made his decree, the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents authority to create monuments without a democratic process, was only five years old, but the issues involved are timeless.
And now Utah once again is at the center of the ideological tug-of-war, bracing for the rope to be tugged in a different direction.
On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order calling for a review of national monument designations from the last three presidents and calling into question the Antiquities Act itself.
The focus of announcement was the Bears Ears National Monument, the 1.3 million acre section of southeast Utah so freshly designated by Barack Obama that it still has that new monument smell. But at the far end of the president’s review is the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, also a large Utah designation created by Bill Clinton 21 years ago.
Both monuments contain natural wonders virtually every side in the debate acknowledges needs protection. The fight is over how big the protected area should be, and how it should be protected. In a larger sense, it is over who should protect it, and whose voices should be heard the loudest.
It’s hard to argue Clinton’s designation was anything other than an election-year ploy to solidify his base. It came during the heat of his 1996 re-election campaign and was a complete surprise to Utah politicians.
The Bears Ears was not a surprise. Obama’s interior secretary made several visits to the state and heard from many people.
It was, however, a monumental failure of politics.
Environmentalists tell me we might not be in this situation if the late former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett still were in office. He brokered a massive public lands bill compromise in the St. George area nearly a decade ago that was seen as the gold standard for resolving contentious land issues.
Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz tried to do something similar with a proposal they called the Public Lands Initiative, but they failed to get all sides together. Environmentalists said the congressmen gave Utah’s counties too much power to veto the plan, and that it didn’t adequately protect important archaeological areas. Chaffetz has accused environmentalists of not cooperating.
The initiative would have made Bears Ears a national conservation area, but its original version also called for Congress to rescind the Antiquities Act, which doomed it — at least under the old administration.
And that brings us full circle to the days of Teddy Roosevelt and Taft.
The Antiquities Act is broadly written, but it says the limits of national monuments “in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected …”
That is, apparently, a matter of opinion, and a man with new opinions now occupies the White House.
Incidentally, efforts to turn the Colorado National Monument into a national park continue today. The latest one failed only three years ago because some folks worried it might bring excess scrutiny from Washington, among other things.
The good news is that the amazing scenery is preserved, even if a final resolution remains as unsettled as it was in 1911.