Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
Monumental Victory in Utah

Club Celebrates 1.7 Million-Acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

By Marie Dolcini.

Calling it a "down payment on the 5.7 million acres we need," Club leaders hailed President Clinton's Sept. 18 decision to proclaim 1.7 million acres of southern Utah canyon lands as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument -- and are pressing for strong protection for all the state's wildlands.

By executive order, Clinton invoked the 90-year-old Antiquities Act to block the threat of coal mining and preserve the Grand Staircase-Escalante for future generations. With the spectacular beauty of Grand Canyon National Park as a backdrop, Clinton announced his decision at the very spot where Theodore Roosevelt declared the canyon a national monument in 1908. And with the stroke of a pen he affirmed over three decades of commitment on the part of the Club's public- lands activists.

The president's announcement was precipitated in large part by a Dutch mining conglomerate's plans for a huge coal mining operation on the Kaiparowits Plateau, a large roadless area containing some of Utah's most spectacular red rock canyons and towering arches. "We can't have mines everywhere and we shouldn't have mines that threaten our national treasures," he said.

Sierra Club staff and volunteers were out in force with signs and hearty applause. Clinton even asked for a Club button for his lapel and wore it over the course of the proceedings.

"The Clinton administration saw there was a lot of support for protecting this wilderness," said Lawson LeGate, the Club's Southwest regional representative. "The national monument designation was entirely the administration's idea, but our activists and allies really laid the groundwork."

The Club's Utah wilderness campaign started in the mid-1970s after the Bureau of Land Management was directed by Congress to study Utah for possible wilderness protection. "The BLM responded by identifying only 2.5 million acres," said LeGate. "We said they were wrong -- there's at least another 3 million."

Club volunteers and friends then filed appeals and initiated a massive public appeal for wilderness protection under the umbrella of the Utah Wilderness Coalition. After going out to the land and studying maps over kitchen tables, they circulated petitions stating that no less than 5.7 million acres be preserved as wilderness. The grassroots effort proved so successful that nearly a million acres were reinstated in the BLM's original wilderness proposal.

"Back then, you could almost count folks who knew that area on two hands," recalled 19-year volunteer Jim Catlin, who participated in the BLM-led study. "Now hundreds have worked on that land." While the newly designated monument does include acreage targeted for preservation by the Sierra Club, a significant portion of Utah public land remains without any protection at all. And so far, none of the acres identified by the Club's "5.7 Wild" campaign have been granted wilderness designation -- a stronger protection requiring congressional approval. "National monument lands still remain at risk for overgrazing, chaining and pipeline installation," warned Catlin.

One of the biggest hurdles to realizing a 5.7-million-acre wilderness designation remains the Utah delegation, including Rep. James Hansen and Sens. Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett, all Republicans. They supported a Utah "wilderness" bill that would have permitted mining and facilitated other destructive development even in the meager 1.8 million acres identified for "protection." The Club helped stop the bill with a major lobbying effort and overwhelming public support. But Hansen, author of the anti-wilderness bill, still chairs the committee that any future Utah wilderness bill will have to pass through.

Now, on the heels of Clinton's action, the Utah delegation is fighting back by creating controversy in the local press and promoting legislation to prevent any future presidential declaration without congressional involvement. And while papers ranging from the Boston Globe and Omaha World Herald to the Casper (Wyoming) Star Tribune have lauded the designation as among the most significant environmental actions taken by the president, Utah's two major dailies have characterized Clinton's action as an outright land grab that could happen anywhere -- including New York City's Central Park.

"Clearly we have to both change the political climate and increase support from a wider number of interests to achieve wilderness protection for these lands," said Catlin. "And there's no better role for the Club. We've been the greatest resource for grassroots support in influencing Congress in the last campaign and in districts outside Utah."

"There's no denying our gains," added LeGate, "but the fight for Utah wilderness is far from over. We ultimately need to establish the entire 5.7 million acres as wilderness so no one builds a highway across it."

To take action: Contact President Clinton to express your thanks for exercising his presidential prerogative to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Write letters-to-the-editor to the two major newspapers in Utah in support of the new monument, emphasizing that this land belongs to all Americans, not just Utahns:

  • Salt Lake Tribune Public Forum, Salt Lake Tribune, P.O. Box 867, Salt Lake City, UT 84110
  • Deseret News Reader's Forum, Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110

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