Louise Liston admits she entered politics as a more relaxing way to continue adding to her state retirement package. After teaching for 20 years, a spot on the Garfield County Commission seemed pretty tame. But now she finds herself leading something of a civil war, as Utah residents fight the federal government's heavy-handed decision to transform 1.7 million acres of federal land into a national monument--placing the land off limits to economic opportunity and forcing the locals to clean up after the tourists. Mrs. Liston has helped organize other local officials, and she's helped strategize responses to the federal government's land grab.
This range war pits ranchers and local governments against the environmental lobby and its allies in the administration. It's not simply commercial interests against the birds and the trees. Some commercial interests did just fine. The White House-friendly Lippo Group of Indonesia could reap millions of dollars because the clean-burning coal that would have been mined in Utah is now off the market; Americans will now have to buy clean coal elsewhere.
The war began last September, when President Clinton made the "mother of all land grabs," in the words of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R- Utah). The president used a 1906 law that allowed him to bypass Congress and mandatory public hearings and unilaterally declare a 2,700 square mile tract of federal land in southern Utah a national monument. The tract includes the gorgeous Escalante River Canyons, along with huge patches of sagebrush country so sparse that even the jackrabbits are lonely.
Mr. Clinton failed to consult a single Utah elected official. Most of them didn't learn about the land grab until a couple of days before the president's Sept. 18 announcement. Not a single Utah official was invited to the announcement ceremony. Mr. Clinton was instead flanked by actor/activist Robert Redford and Sierra Club president Adam Werbach, as well as Vice President Al Gore and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
Mr. Redford was particularly supportive. Less than six weeks before the election, he littered the country with newspaper op-ed columns declaring that Mr. Clinton had saved "our spiritual continuity as a nation, which comes with experiencing these natural treasures." The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument "could well be the defining legacy of the Clinton presidency."
Mrs. Liston, a grandmother who runs a ranch (ostrich and cattle) with her husband, learned about the land grab during the noon news that day. She says she realized the implications immediately, although they are not immediately apparent.
Taking federal land and declaring it a national monument is not theft; the feds had title to the land in the first place.
But the land wasn't just lying around, waiting for someone to come along and use it. Raw federal land is used by ranchers, loggers, and miners. Their income is taxed and contributes to the local, county, and school district coffers. Those activities generally aren't allowed in national monument sites, so no profits--and no taxes.
Utah will lose a potential $1 trillion in economic activity, as well as hundreds of livable-wage jobs. The area contains the Kaiparowita Plateau, which shelters what is likely the nation's biggest untapped reserve of clean-burning (low sulfur) coal, natural gas, and oil. A Dutch company's plans to mine that coal were scrapped when the area was declared a monument; mining is not allowed, and President Clinton singled out the Dutch firm by name.
"We were in the final agreement stage for the Andalex coal mine," says Mrs. Liston. "I was putting together an agreement that would bring close to $1 billion into the school trust fund in Utah."
County governments also found themselves obligated to provide support services for hikers, campers, rafters, and other visitors already flocking to the site. Garfield County, for example, has a sheriff and three deputies to police an area of 5,000 square miles. That works fine when they're only policing the county's 4,000 residents. But add the 3 million visitors a year Garfield County is already starting to see, and it becomes unmanageable. The resources simply aren't there.
Local officials got a foretaste of what could come last December, when a photographer visiting the monument was stranded for eight days in a canyon. Search and rescue teams found him before he died, but the cost was high. Overtime pay, vehicle use, and a hired helicopter nearly depleted the county's public safety budget for the coming year.
Mrs. Liston points out the "seductive" nature of the monument. It's beautiful but unforgiving. "To the inexperienced back-country visitor," she says, "these areas are trouble just waiting to happen. And who is expected to come to their rescue and is liable when they don't?"
County governments also will need to provide roads, sanitary facilities, and solid waste collection. If that sounds trivial, she says, try paying to haul garbage hundreds of miles every day.
It has since been reported that with the Utah clean-burning coal off the market, America's only source is Indonesia. The Lippo Group--which has been accused of making unethical if not illegal contributions to the Clinton/Gore '96 campaign and the Democratic National Committee--will be one of the big winners.
Here's how it works: Indonesian mines already produce about 41 million tons of coal a year, using cheap labor, and even cheaper strip-mining processes. That coal goes to Japanese, Chinese, and American buyers--passing through ports and shipping facilities built and controlled by the Lippo Group and its founder Mochtar Riady. There are even more direct ties between Lippo and the Indonesian coal fields. A Lippo subsidiary has been involved in a coal-fueled power plant development in China.
The Tampa Electric Company of Florida has contracted to buy 400,000 tons of Indonesian coal each year.
It should also be noted that the Sierra Club gave President Clinton its endorsement a few days after the the monument was declared. With the Green Party's candidate Ralph Nader polling nearly 10 percent of likely voters on the West Coast as late as September, Mr. Clinton's lock on the key states of California, Washington, and Oregon was anything but sure.
So far, the battles have been fought with road graders and writs. There's a law that prevents the Interior Department from declaring as "wilderness" areas that already have roads. So Garfield and Kane Counties have sent out road graders to scrape the area's web of jeep-and-goat trails into a semblance of passable roadways. The Interior Department went to court in December to stop the graders; a federal judge sided with the administration and ordered the road work to stop.
Now the battle is in the courtroom. Mrs. Liston says she doesn't see any way to avoid lawsuits attempting to force the feds to assume financial responsibility for the monument, although she doesn't look forward to pitting the county's legal budget against the resources of the federal government.
"But we really have no choice now," she says. Those lawsuits could be filed in federal court this month.