On September 19, 1996, a mere seven weeks before the presidential election, President Bill Clinton stood in Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park and declared that, with the stroke of his pen, 1.8 million acres of land in Utah would be off limits to economic development.
President Clinton did not consult with Congress on the matter. Nor did he give the Utah congressional delegation, Democrats and Republicans alike, more than 24 hours notice.
President Clinton’s use of the Antiquities Act in 1996 to unilaterally create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was one of the driving forces behind the Public Lands Initiative unveiled by Representatives Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) this week.
Once again we are in an election year and once again a Democratic president is threatening to use unilateral executive power to take millions of acres away from the people of Utah.
Reps. Bishop and Chaffetz are trying to head off a new monument designation by working with local, state, federal, and tribal leaders to reach a mutual agreement that will bring some much needed certainty to the region.
Over the past two years, 120 different stakeholders have met more than 1,200 times, producing more than 65 proposals. The deal that was struck, called the Public Lands Initiative (PLI), would officially set aside more than 4 million acres of land for conservation, much of it already managed as wilderness study areas.
Another 1 million acres will be made available for much needed economic development and recreation, including lucrative transfers to Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands (SITLA), which will help fund public education for decades to come.
But most importantly the PLI includes language that will protect the participating counties from a unilateral designation by President Obama, or any future president. Under the PLI, the president would be restrained.
This compromise is a huge win for Utah. Rarely does the federal government return power to the states. And other western states, like Wyoming and Arizona, are already moving to copy this model.
More work needs to be done to reform how the federal government manages the more than 60 percent of federal land held in Utah. But the PLI is a good start.