GRAND STAIRCASE-ESCALANTE NATIONAL MONUMENT – As part of a historical three-day tour to Utah, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wrapped up his trip this week visiting the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Wednesday.
President Donald Trump recently ordered Zinke to review 24 to 40 monuments – starting in Utah.
Created in 1996 under former President Bill Clinton, the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument takes in 3,000 square miles or nearly 1.9million acres and encompasses the largest land area of any monument outside of Alaska.
It contains three primary physiographic regions: the Grand Staircase, the Escalante Canyons and Kaiparowits Plateau – an area the U.S. Geological Survey estimates contains 62 billion tons of coal.
Over the years, the monument has remained a sore spot among political leaders who were left out during the process of its creation and feel to this day their voices have been ignored.
Zinke’s visit Wednesday began in Kanab with an 8:30 a.m. breakfast at the water conservancy district building where he participated in a round table discussion with several state and local leaders, most all of them sporting cowboy hats and boots – icons of a vanishing culture many locals blame in part on the designation of the monument.
“Before the monument my same allotment was allowed 260 head of cattle. But think of this, think of selling 260 calves in the fall versus 64 calves in the fall,” local rancher and Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock said, about his own grazing rights on the monument. “Those other 200 allotments are suspended and they aren’t any good to me. So they show up on paper in the BLM office as allotments so it looks like we still have the same amount of allotments but they’re suspended and I can’t use them. That’s how the federal government is getting rid of the rancher on the monument.”
Following the morning briefing, the group headed to Big Water where they met up at the Bureau of Land Management office to start their all-day trek to the top of Smokey Mountain.
About halfway to the destination, Zinke’s entourage stopped to take a short hike to the once-proposed Smokey Hollow Mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau.
Utah Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, took this chance to share with Zinke that as a former employee of the BLM he had overseen a “bulletproof” environmental impact assessment on a project that would have generated 9 billion tons of clean high-quality coal, hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue.
Instead, Noel said, Clinton and then-Vice President Al Gore stood on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and announced the designation of the monument – locking up the coal for at least the next two decades. All for political gain, he added.
But with the current U.S. president motivated to keep his campaign promises to renew the coal industry, political leaders are hopeful Trump will reduce the size of the monument which could allow access to the coal reserves.
“I’m very excited. I think there’s hope, hope for the people who want change on the monument and who want the boundaries reduced dramatically,” Pollock said. “If we can’t rescind this thing then we need to reduce it to the minimum amount possible. I’m excited. This is a good day.”
When asked by St. George News whether the mineral resources inside the monument are a factor in the ultimate decision to reduce the acreage, Zinke said the president is interested in developing “all energy sources.”
“Monuments should never be put in a position to prevent rather than protect and the president is pro-energy across the board,” Zinke said. “We, as a country, we need an economy and what drives our economy in a lot of ways is energy. So energy has to be abundant, reliable and affordable and coal has taken huge hits and the president and I believe inappropriately so.”
Zinke would not commit on how large of a role coal might play in deciding the monument’s fate.
“We’re not picking or choosing which energy,” Zinke said. “We are looking at America as it should be the energy leader and environmentally it is better to produce energy here under reasonable regulations than be held hostage by energy produced oversees with no regulations.”
Kane and Garfield County commissioners prepared a proposal for the monument to be reduced to 200,000 acres. It was given to the interior secretary on his visit.
Zinke toured the monument overhead for two hours via helicopter. Upon returning, the interior secretary was careful not to commit to anything specific but said he believes some of the areas in the monument deserve protections provided for under the Antiquities Act while others do not.
“There are some absolutely beautiful areas inside the monument and areas I can see need protection but there are other areas I’m not so sure, Zinke said.
The interior secretary was later met at Kanab International Airport by several dozen protestors, who want are against reducing or rescinding the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, chanting ,“We are locals, talk to us,” with the backdrop of a press conference on the tarmac.
Zinke has repeatedly said he wants to hear from those closest to the monument since they weren’t heard the last time around.
“Local communities need to have a voice,” Zinke said. “When this monument was created even the governor read about it in the local paper. The Department of Interior wants to be the advocate, the collaborative department, and work with local communities because we think and the president thinks that local communities in America should have a say and a voice.”
But echoing similar sentiments shared by their counterparts 21 years ago, the protestors said they don’t feel Zinke is taking their opinions into consideration.
“We have repeatedly sent out letters,” Nathan Waggoner, business owner and resident of Escalante, said. “One hundred and fifty business owners from Garfield County and several from the gateway communities sent letters to Zinke and took them to Washington to the DOI (Department of Interior) office beforehand and we got no response. What we want to do is start a dialogue, and then begin to talk to people about what our options are because we haven’t seen any of that. And we haven’t been a part of the dialogue up to now.”
The protestors also argued the communities near the Grand Staircase are “booming,” because of the monument designation, despite claims by the county commissioners that the area has experienced an economic downturn
“People are coming here (Escalante) because we have preserved the public lands,” said Mark Austin, an owner of a construction company in Escalante. “The reality is Escalante is booming and it’s not just tourists. We have a new hardware store, new lumber store, new medical clinic. We have the highest number of building permits issued this last year and for the highest dollar amount per building permit.”
Austin, like others at the protest, pointed to what he calls a healthy job market specifically pointing to the tourism and construction industries they say have only seen increased growth from the monument designation.
The commissioners, however, say tourism jobs do not provide a living wage for a family and are often seasonal at that.
“This nonsense about tourism jobs is nonsense,” Pollock said. “Yeah there’s tourism jobs, some tourism jobs. Those aren’t going to sustain a family. Minimum wage six months out of the year is not going to sustain a family. Simple as that.”
Even with so much divisiveness from both sides, Zinke said he believes there is potential for a compromise.
“It’s beautiful country and I still remain an optimist,” Zinke said. “I’ve talked to both sides while I’ve been here. I talked to the tribes. I talked to the cowboys who live on the land and folks who have a strong heritage and feelings. Universally it’s people who love the land and they just want to see the right things get done and they want to see that what needs to be protected is protected. I’m an optimist and I think there’s enough common ground to move forward. So we’ll gather our thoughts, break out the maps and make a good recommendation to the president.”
Zinke toured Bears Ears National Monument Monday and Tuesday this week. Under Trump’s order the interior secretary has 45 days to provide his initial findings on that monument and another 120 days to prepare his recommendations for the other monuments that will be given to the president for further action.
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