The Case for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

The Upper Gulch section of the Escalante Canyons  features sheer sandstone walls, broken occasionally by tributary canyons.

President Donald Trump’s national monuments executive order is an attack on American national parks, public lands, and oceans. One of its specific targets is the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. Although some Utah politicians argue that this monument has had a negative impact on the surrounding area, the reality on the ground is quite different: By a margin of better than 2 to 1, Utahns believe that the monument’s designation was good for their state. Even the Utah Office of Tourism cites the monument as one of its “most visited parks” and boasts about its vast size and “phenomenal” allure. The truth is that Grand Staircase-Escalante is valuable. It deserves its status as a national monument for a multitude of reasons and should not be targeted by Trump’s misguided attempts to sell out U.S. public lands.

This column details just some of the reasons why Grand Staircase-Escalante should remain protected as a national monument.

The local economy is thriving because of the monument

  • Rural Western counties with more protected public lands, including national monuments, have faster-growing populations, employment rates, and personal incomes than those with less protected land. In fact, since Grand Staircase-Escalante’s designation in 1996, per capita incomes have risen 28 percent and employment has risen 40 percent in the communities adjacent to the national monument. While such statistics do not prove causation, they do disprove the idea that the national monument prevented economic growth.
  • The vice president of the Escalante Chamber of Commerce has attested to the region’s economic success following designation, noting that the tourism industry has continued to grow and that local businesses are employing more people than ever.
  • Arguments that the monument has hurt ranchers by limiting grazing are untrue. Grazing within the monument has remained virtually unchanged since the designation. In fact, it has shrunk by less than 0.5 percent.

Grand Staircase-Escalante is full of antiquities and areas of scientific and archeological interest

  • The monument’s scientific, natural, and cultural value, as well as its more than 20,000 archeological sites, deserved protection when the monument was designated—and still do today. The monument’s Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, webpage notes that its “size, resources, and remote character provide extraordinary opportunities for geologists, paleontologists, archeologists, historians, and biologists in scientific research, education, and exploration.” A BLM archeologist has also emphasized that the “wholeness” of the archeological record is what makes the area unique.
  • The monument has been called a dinosaur “Shangri-La” due to its high volume of well-preserved fossils from the late Cretaceous Period. Twenty-one never-before-seen dinosaurs have been discovered in the monument since its designation.
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante is in the top 4 percent of similarly sized places in the West for ecological intactness and in the top 7 percent for ecological connectivity and night sky darkness—higher than the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone national parks. These indicators are necessary for high biodiversity and landscape-level conservation.

The courts have ruled that there is no question as to the monument’s legality under the Antiquities Act

In 2004, a federal judge ruled that former President Bill Clinton was well within his legal authority in designating the monument. The judge rejected claims made by a group of Utah counties that the size of the monument exceeded what is allowed under the Antiquities Act.

Congress has confirmed and clarified the boundaries of the monument

  • At its creation, Grand Staircase-Escalante encompassed small pockets of land that were owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. An agreement was reached with the federal government in which state officials swapped the inholdings for more resource-rich federal land elsewhere in the state. In addition to receiving a $50 million payment upon completion of the deal, the lands that the state government acquired in the exchange have generated more than $310 million for Utah’s public schools, counties, and other institutions.
  • Importantly, the land exchange passed through Congress in 1998, codifying the new boundaries into law.

The monument holds oil, gas, and coal resources, raising questions about the motivations of those who want to roll back protections

  • President Trump’s executive order is part of a larger effort to sell off the nation’s public lands to the highest bidder. Industry groups, including the American Petroleum Institute and the Western Energy Alliance, have already expressed interest in drilling in Utah’s national monuments. Including Grand Staircase-Escalante in the review is yet another nod to the power of the fossil fuel industry to influence the administration’s actions.
  • The discussion on coal mining in the monument was settled 18 years ago, when the coal company that had leases within the monument’s boundaries was compensated with a generous sum of $14 million. At a time when most major coal companies have been in and out of bankruptcy and the price of coal has declined to around $40 per ton, reversing protections on Grand Staircase-Escalante to appease special interests would not make economic sense. But it would sacrifice the rural economic gains driven by protection of natural and cultural heritage.

Conclusion

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is one of many national treasures under attack by the Trump administration. Any attempt by President Trump to eliminate or alter the monument would undermine the cultural and natural resources it protects.

Jenny Rowland is the Research and Advocacy Manager for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.