ST. GEORGE – In the wake of the presidential declaration that reduced the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half its original size Monday, a Utah congressman wants to turn part of the remaining monument into a national park.
In what he calls a “win-win” for conservationists and land access advocates, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, announced Tuesday that he had drafted legislation that would create the “Escalante Canyons National Park.”
The park would be around 100,000 acres in size and largely reside within the monument’s newly modified boundaries. The national monument exists within Utah’s 2nd Congressional District that Stewart represents.
The proposal comes after President Donald Trump signed declarations Monday that shrank both the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monument. Originally 1.9 million acres, Grand Staircase-Escalante was reduced to just over 1 million acres and divided into three segments. Bears Ears was reduced from 1.3 million acres to 201,876 acres.
“With their deep narrow canyons, high plateaus, sheer cliffs, incredible vistas and vibrant colors, the Escalante Canyons are a crown jewel in the state,” Rep. Stewart said in a statement Wednesday. “Escalante Canyons National Park is a win-win for those wanting conservation and access.”
Referred to as the “Grand Staircase Escalante Enhancement Act,” the bill proposes not only to create what would become Utah’s sixth natural park, but also codify the new boundaries outlined by Trump’s declaration.
The bill also does not restrict mineral extraction inside the lands formerly a part of the original monument.
Stewart told Utah media outlets Tuesday that a national park designation will help bring more tourism to the area, as well as make the area more accessible. It will also provide resources currently unavailable to national monuments.
“Look, for all those people who say monuments are good for tourism, a national park is even better,” Stewart said Tuesday, as reported by the Deseret News.
As for access and resources, Stewart said the new park would provide trials, roads, restrooms and other visitor amenities, Fox 13 News reported. Additional funding for the park would also come with a national park designation.
However, getting funding for a new park may be an issue, as the National Park Service estimates that it has deferred maintenance in its parks is at over $11 billion. As a way to help counter this, a fee hike has been proposed at many of the country’s more popular national parks.
Parks that would be impacted by the fee increase include Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, as well as Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Zion national parks in Utah.
Stewart does not support the fee increase and has suggested revenues from mineral extraction leases, as well as a “backpack tax,” a fee on camping gear, be used to help fund the new national park.
Gov. Gary Herbert said in a statement to Fox 13 News that he supports the idea of a new park.
“I am encouraged to see Rep. Stewart taking positive action toward supporting public lands in Utah,” Herbert said. “A balanced, tailored approach to public lands in Utah should include a new national park, clear limits and prohibitions against mineral extraction in sensitive areas and meaningful co-management of sacred lands for our Native American tribes.”
The new park proposal is not without opposition, however.
State Sen. James Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, told The Salt Lake Tribune that Stewart’s plan is a distraction to get the public to forget the state’s Republican leadership wants to open parts of Southern Utah to mining.
“Congressman Stewart’s proposal is a sleight of hand, a trick, a P.R. stunt to make up for the sins of drastically shrinking two precious national monuments in Utah,” Dabakis said. “I fear that Congressman Stewart and the rest of Utah’s Republican officials simply want to participate in a land grab, so they can open a doorway to their pollution-creating friends and donors in the coal and fossil fuel business.”
Chase Thomas, with the Alliance for a Better Utah, told Fox 13 News Tuesday that, while he was glad Stewart appears to want to protect public lands, his proposed bill “seems to be nothing more than subterfuge following (Monday’s) tragic decisions.”
“If these areas deserve national park status, then the entire monument area deserves the same status. Imagine driving into this new national park through newly opened coal mines and other resource development,” Thomas said. “To do this would be a disservice to the prestige and beauty of our national park system.”
Rep. John Curtis, who was elected to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz earlier this year, has also introduced legislation targeting what remains of the Bears Ears National Monument which is in his district. Like Stewart’s bill, Curtis would see the new monument boundaries made law by congressional action.
Unlike Stewart’s bill, Curtis would ban new mineral extraction leases in the areas that had been a part of the original boundaries. Tribes would also be given a role in managing the area under the bill.
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