A looming decision about whether to abolish or shrink the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah should provide an early signal of how the Trump administration will deal with a long list of public lands issues.
For roughly a month and a half, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has had 27 national monuments under a microscope, reviewing the protected status of these vast expanses of land (and, in some cases, water) at the prompting of an April executive order by President Trump.
The idea, according to the order, is to assure that each of these areas is appropriately designated under the 1906 Antiquities Act, a law that gives the president the authority to establish national monuments ... with a few caveats. Namely, they must include "historic landmarks" or "other objects of historic or scientific interest," and they must not exceed "the smallest area" necessary for their upkeep.
At issue is whether the presidents who created the monuments overstepped their authority. But just as important to those who live around the sites is whether they restrict the economy and ignore local interests.
Bears Ears, established last year by President Barack Obama, is the first on Zinke's list. But a second Utah site, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, offers a more comprehensive glimpse into the controversy that eddies around many of the monuments — and a revealing peek into what Zinke may ultimately recommend to the president.
So, here it is: a tour of Grand Staircase-Escalante. That is, a tour of the national monument's economic impact, the political cloud surrounding it — and what we can expect once Zinke's decision comes down.
So, what is the benefit or harm of having a national monument in your neighborhood?
According to Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based think tank that crunched the data on jobs and the economy around 17 of the national monuments under review, the effect is anywhere from nothing to a modest net positive.
Chris Mehl, the group's policy director, says that from 2001 to 2015, overall jobs in the communities around Grand Staircase, in particular, increased by 24 percent and personal income overall grew by 32 percent.
These jobs are believed to be mostly service based, in fields that include everything from health care to hospitality, outdoor recreation and tourism.
The monument lies within two rural counties in southern Utah, home to about 12,000 residents and about a half-dozen towns across an area that's nearly 10,000 square miles in size.
Mehl says the economies of rural Western communities like the one around Grand Staircase have changed dramatically, "with huge social impacts we're just coming to grips with." So other, larger economic factors may be involved.
"But there's no sign of an economic apocalypse here," he says.
Commissioners in rural Garfield County, Utah, have long seen it differently.
In 2015, they passed a resolution declaring a state of emergency, saying the monument had all but wiped out the natural resource-based economy in the area. They cited a remarkable 67 percent drop in enrollment at Escalante High School since the monument was designated, while other schools have suffered similar drops.
"We see markers that don't indicate a healthy economy," says Matthew Anderson of the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based free market think tank. He argues that Headwaters' study doesn't tell the whole story.
Local anger still runs deep over President Bill Clinton's 1996 designation because it also effectively nixed a proposed coal mining operation. A Dutch mining firm's proposal could have brought in $100 million in new tax revenue and created about 600 jobs, according to state estimates at the time.
Anderson argues the types of jobs created by a national monument designation — namely in recreation and tourism — tend to be low-paying and seasonal, and he says these jobs don't always sustain families the way livestock grazing does. A national monument grandfathers existing activities like grazing leases but bars new ones.
Some residents throw cold water on the idea of shaky employment.
"We are awash in jobs," Blake Spalding, co-owner of a local grill, tells The Salt Lake Tribune. "What we need is people to fill them."
The debate around Grand Staircase by no means ends with the balance sheet.
Ninety-three percent of Garfield County is owned and controlled by the federal government. And for some detractors, like former Escalante Mayor Jerry Taylor, the federal presence feels akin to that of an unwelcome relative.
"We love our mother-in-law," he once said, according to E&E News. "But sometimes we don't want her to tell us how to run our house."
Those detractors have not forgotten how the monument was established in the first place: planned largely without input from state leaders and designated by Clinton at a signing ceremony that wasn't even in Utah.
"Remember," Zinke said during a visit to the state, according to The Tribune, "when this monument was formed, the governor of Utah read it in the paper."
As recently as February, Utah lawmakers called on Washington to reduce the size of the monument, citing "a negative impact on the prosperity, development, economy, custom, culture, heritage, educational opportunities, health, and well-being of local communities" — among other grievances.
Nevertheless, when Zinke visited Grand Staircase last month, he was greeted by chants of demonstrators calling for him to "save our monument," the St. George Spectrum & Daily News notes.
The site — flush with ancient artifacts and fossils that date back tens of millions of years — has been lauded as "the Shangri-La for dinosaurs." And proponents defend its value not only for recreational visitors, but also for scientists.
"What we learn here matters to the entire West," Nicole Croft, executive director of Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, tells E&E News.
The ultimate fate of the monuments is murky partly because a president's authority under the law that established them, the 1906 Antiquities Act, may be open to dispute.
"What's unclear right now is whether the president has the authority to undo what one of his predecessors has done," says Mark Squillace, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School. The act "essentially authorizes the president to proclaim, but not to modify or revoke, national monuments."
Squillace says only Congress has the clear authority to revoke a designation because Congress has authority over public property.
While some small monuments have been turned over to states, no precedent exists for the abolition of a national monument the size of Grand Staircase.
Because of that lack of clarity, one thing is fairly clear: Any order by Trump to shrink or nullify any monument will almost certainly end up in court. It is widely expected that environmentalists would immediately sue.
Squillace says the dispute could go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Even Zinke himself hinted at the uncertainty during his confirmation hearings earlier this year.
"The law is untested," he said.
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