Features

Taking the land, not the financial responsibility

National | Local officials tell Washington to take it all or leave it alone

Issue: "Spring Draining," April 12, 1997

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.

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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?"

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