Letters from the West

National monuments: Trump chooses to make a statement instead of making a difference

Hikers in Peek-a-Boo Canyon in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Escalante, Utah, in October 2008.
Hikers in Peek-a-Boo Canyon in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Escalante, Utah, in October 2008. NYT

President Donald Trump has at his fingertips the power of the Antiquities Act of 1906 to leave a legacy that would last longer than his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He could have used his signature on a proclamation in his first 100 days to preserve a piece of America’s beloved natural, historical and geological treasure. Instead, he bought into the rhetoric of Utah’s congressional delegation and other westerners who want to gut the law that has been used by presidents since Teddy Roosevelt to preserve so many of our crown jewels.

Trump used his pen Wednesday to order Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review all of the monuments the last three presidents have protected by proclamation over 100,000 acres since 1996. Calling these designations a “massive land grab,” Trump promised to return power to the people.

But the man who brought hunters and anglers over to his side in his campaign by rejecting Utah’s call for transferring most of the public land in the West to the states wasn’t reacting to the people in places like Escalante, Utah, or Arco, Idaho. These national monuments already were federal land when they were declared monuments. And the people who didn’t get their hands on the valuables they contain are the mining companies and energy industries — or, in the case of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument near Hawaii, the multinational fishing industry.

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is the man most responsible for getting Trump to do this. He wants Trump to dramatically reduce the size of the 1. 35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument that President Obama created in late 2016.

But most of all, Bishop wants to eliminate or dramatically reduce the power presidents have to preserve public treasures with the Antiquities Act. Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador and Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch share that goal.

Mike Simpson, our other Republican in Congress, opposes gutting the act. He’s not alone among congressional Republicans and is joined by virtually all Democrats. That means it’s unlikely that President Trump is going to see legislation to change the Antiquities Act any time soon.

The angst among western Republicans has been there from the beginning of the law. Roosevelt, who signed the Antiquities Act, used it 19 times to protect places like Grand Canyon and what became Olympic National Park in Washington.

Westerners fought preserving the Grand Canyon, just as they have with the 34 national monuments President Obama designated or enlarged. On the Grand Canyon, Roosevelt’s answer was simple.

“Leave it as it is,” Roosevelt said. “You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

The 1996 date is key. That’s the year President Bill Clinton proclaimed 1.7 million acres in southern Utah as the Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The proclamation came in the heat of his re-election campaign. He announced it in Arizona. Only five people even knew he was working on it until shortly before it was announced. Utah and the Garfield County commissioners were blindsided with no involvement at all. Staircase-Escalante became the poster child for the abuses of the Antiquities Act.

When Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt came to Idaho in late 2000 to study expanding Craters of the Moon National Monument, he made sure he worked with the state’s congressional delegation and local officials. I watched him in Laidlaw Park go over the maps of his proposal with ranchers, including Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa.

Eventually Clinton expanded the monument from 54,000 acres to 661,000 acres, a 12-fold increase. But it doesn’t fall under Trump’s review because Simpson got Congress to pass legislation making the expansion a preserve and guaranteeing that hunting could continue.

The Boulder and White Clouds mountains also could have been wrapped up in Trump’s power play had it not been for Simpson’s deft leadership preventing a national monument by getting Congress to pass a wilderness bill unanimously in 2015. Crapo did the same thing with his Owyhee wilderness bill in 2009.

Bishop had the ability to do the same thing for Bears Ears and craft a Utah-led plan. But he was unwilling to work in good faith with conservation groups and the tribes that supported it.

So what has he got instead? Trump gave him a review and more rhetoric.

Zinke, who says Roosevelt is his role model, is in charge of the review. He said he will look at whether the monuments caused a “loss of jobs, reduced wages and reduced public access.”

I hope he talks to people in Escalante, Utah. I drove north up the spectacular Staircase in 2015 to find a breathtaking landscape as beautiful and scenic as the surrounding national parks.

Escalante had been a dying town after its timber mill closed, something with which rural Idahoans can identify. The locals said they would have benefited from the building of a coal mine the monument prevented from development.

But it’s pretty obvious that coal mining is a dying industry. It’s unlikely anyone would have gotten the money to invest in exploiting coal far from distant markets.

Today investors are building two new resort lodges in Escalante. One business person said overall business in the town doubled last year over 2015.

Dennis Waggoner, whose family owns Escalante Outfitters and its lodging, two restaurants and scenic tours, said his business has doubled since he came in 2006. He has a payroll a $500,000 for his 25 employees who work nine months out of the year.

“My waitresses make $25 an hour with tips,” Waggoner said. “I’m trying to get all of my workers up to $15 an hour.”

The former oil and gas industry executive can’t get Bishop or Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch to listen. Maybe Zinke will.

“What we’re seeing,” said Waggoner, “is local people are investing in tourism.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker