Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

Published: Friday, November 16, 2012

Utah’s Republican lawmakers are opposing a proposal by conservationists and an outdoor industry group for President Obama to designate a national monument around Canyonlands National Park, arguing that such designations should be vetted by the public and carried out by Congress.

But conservation groups in Utah said they have been calling for the Bureau of Land Management to initiate a public comment process to protect the area since March 2011.

At issue is a proposal to turn 1.4 million acres of mesas, plateaus and canyons surrounding Canyonlands into a monument where off-highway vehicle use; uranium, potash and oil sands mining; and oil and gas drilling would be restricted.

The Outdoor Industry Association on Tuesday said it hopes to be a “catalyst” for broader discussion of a monument, arguing that the long-term economic benefits of conservation far outweigh any short-term gains from developing the lands for resource extraction (E&ENews PM, Nov. 13). In a gridlocked Congress, the president should use the Antiquities Act to immediately protect the area, they argued.

But Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee and Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz in a letter to the president yesterday said congressionally authorized land-use proposals are more accountable and transparent to the public. In addition, resource extraction is an important economic driver in Utah and can be balanced with the preservation of open space, they said.

“We strongly urge the rejection of the most recent — and all future — petitions for national monument designations by presidential decree,” they wrote.

Greater Canyonlands is one of several areas conservation advocates are targeting for potential monument designations during Obama’s second term.

While such designations can curtail energy development and motorized access — sparking accusations of “land grabs” by some Westerners — supporters point to research suggesting national monuments improve quality of life and attract tourists, retirees and high-wage earners.

Still, monument proposals are politically dicey in Utah, a state that has vowed to “take back” federal lands and where many still seethe from President Clinton’s 1996 designation of the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Bishop’s office acknowledged the economic benefits from recreation on public lands but said a large portion of the revenue comes from motorized off-highway vehicles and mountain bikes, both of which are prohibited in wilderness areas.

In their March 2011 petition to protect the Canyonlands area, the Grand Canyon Trust, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association and Natural Resources Defense Council asked BLM to temporarily close about 1,050 miles of primitive routes in the region while it studies the effects off-highway vehicles have on soil erosion, loss of native plant and animal life, degradation of air and water quality, damage to archaeological sites and impacts to nonmotorized visitors.

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