The Denver Post

We can help shape this Utah monument

- By Jonathan Thompson Jonathan Thompson is a contributo­r to writersont­herange.org, an independen­t nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversati­on about the West. His newsletter The Land Desk covers the region.

When President Joe Biden restored the original boundaries of both Grand StaircaseE­scalante and Bears Ears national monuments in 2021, public- land lovers felt they had achieved a lasting victory.

Biden’s action reversed the Trump administra­tion’s shrinkage of these protected areas in southern Utah, and once again put those spectacula­r canyons off- limits to mining and energy developmen­t. The victory was confirmed in August, when a federal court dismissed Utah’s attempt to overturn Biden’s action.

But in some ways, the crucial work of preserving these places has just begun. The proclamati­ons establishi­ng and restoring the two national monuments are lofty documents that make the case for wielding the Antiquitie­s Act to protect the landscapes in question. But the real test is always what happens on the ground.

We have a clearer picture of that now, because this August, the BLM released its draft resource management plan and environmen­tal impact statement for Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument. The public has until Nov. 9 to make its wishes known.

The local environmen­tal community sees the agency’s “preferred” alternativ­e, which “emphasizes the protection and maintenanc­e of intact and resilient landscapes …” as a vast improvemen­t over the status quo. Though it’s less restrictiv­e than one of the other four alternativ­es, this approach would significan­tly limit grazing, motorized vehicle use, and target shooting across the monument.

State and local politician­s who subscribe to the Sagebrush Rebel ideology have been attempting to dismantle the national monument ever since then- President Bill Clinton establishe­d it in 1996. Neither Congress nor even the George W. Bush administra­tion would accede to their demands, but over the years the monument has been starved of funds, lost valuable staff and its management has been influenced by the local culture, which is generally hostile to federal land management.

Then two decades after Grand StaircaseE­scalante was establishe­d, Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch convinced President Donald Trump to drasticall­y shrink it. The legality of the move was questionab­le at best: The Antiquitie­s Act gives the president the power to establish national monuments, but not to rescind or dismantle them. The Trump administra­tion’s management plan also gutted protection­s — especially relating to grazing.

The livestock industry has long claimed that the national monument’s grazing rules would destroy local ranching. Yet Clinton’s proclamati­on clearly stated that grazing would continue under the existing

BLM rules. In fact, the national monument helped a handful of ranchers who were ready to get out of the marginal business of running cows in inhospitab­le terrain. The ranchers struck a deal to retire their grazing permits in exchange for a generous cash payout from the nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust.

Even after the buyout, more than 95% of the monument remained open to livestock, and the number of cattle — or animal unit months — permitted on the monument is about the same now as it was in 1996.

But here’s the problem: Biden’s restoratio­n of the monument did not repeal the Trump- era plan that opened up retired grazing allotments. Now the public has an opportunit­y to do that.

The agency’s “preferred” alternativ­e would divide the monument into four management areas, with different levels of developmen­t and access in each. Grazing allotments not currently under permit would be permanentl­y closed to livestock. New range improvemen­ts would be limited or prohibited. And off- road vehicles would be banned from the Primitive Area and selected other areas and limited to designated routes.

It’s a lot less than most conservati­onists were looking for. It would leave 85% of the monument open to tens of thousands of grazing cattle trampling fragile cryptobiot­ic soils. But Scott Berry, board president of the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a nonprofit founded to protect and preserve the monument, urges the environmen­tal community to get behind the plan.

To comment, visit the Bureau of Land Management’s planning site by Nov. 9: https:// eplanning. blm. gov/ eplanning- ui/ project/ 2020343/ 510

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