SALT LAKE CITY — Local leaders' role in managing a proposed national park and three new national monuments in southern Utah led to a testy exchange between a Garfield County commissioner and an Arizona congressman during a congressional hearing Thursday.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., apparently touched a nerve while probing a provision in legislation calling for a management council made up of local officials. He wanted to know how the rural county would manage and pay for management of the lands.
"You can interrogate me all day long, but we’ll manage those lands a lot better than they’ve been managed," Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock said.
Pollock tried to explain that local leaders would draft a plan, but the Bureau of Land Management would do the work on the ground.
"Your BLM, the government’s BLM would be managing them. The county wouldn’t be managing the lands," he said. "That’s like saying, 'Do you want me to transfer those lands?' Do it right now. Transfer me that land and I’ll manage it. I’ll tax it."
Pollock's comments illustrate the us-versus-them mentality that prevails when it comes to public lands issues involving Utah and the federal government.
The House Natural Resources' Subcommittee on Federal Lands held the first hearing Thursday on Utah Rep. Chris Stewart's bill that would put into law President Donald Trump's order splitting the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument into three significantly smaller monuments and creating a new national park.
"We have tried to do something where we didn't have a winner and didn’t have a loser," Stewart said.
Hawaii Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, said under normal circumstances legislation for a new national park would have brought bipartisan support.
"But the circumstances surrounding this bill and the proposed national park are by no means normal," she said.
Hanabusa questioned the timing of the bill, pointing out it is incomplete and contains no maps for the park. She also noted that no National Park Service representatives were invited to speak at the hearing.
The hearing delved into former President Bill Clinton's use of the Antiquities Act to create Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996, the merits of the law itself and how the new monuments and proposed park would help or hurt tourism and rural economies.
"I’m here because this is unfinished business for me," former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt told the panel after recounting how the Clinton administration designated the monument "in stealth." He called it an "abuse of power, process and protocol so egregious that it is offensive to the concept of democracy itself."
Leavitt said the 1906 law that gives presidents the authority to proclaim national monuments is "wrong, not democratic and needs to change."
"This is not the way public land decisions should or were ever intended to be made," he said.
Had local, state and federal government collaboratively focused on the best use of the land in the Grand Staircase-Escalante area, problems could have been solved ahead of time.
"As it is, we’ve had eight years of litigation. We’ve now had 20 years of conversation. We’re continuing to visit it in a divisive way. Could it have been done better? Absolutely," he said.
Democrats on the committee noted that Congress later ratified Clinton's order, bought out mining leases for $20 million and approved a land transfer and $50 million payment to Utah.
Susan Hand, co-owner of Willow Canyon Outdoor in Kanab, told the committee the Grand Staircase-Escalante has turned around her once-struggling town, creating a "diverse spectrum of revenue flows" that goes beyond travel and tourism.
Attacking the national monument, she said, batters the local economies and communities and goes against the will of the American people.
"To codify the unraveling of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is to disrespect that. To throw in a national park is to apply lipstick," she said.
Pollock said he's tired of all the "propaganda" about the monument. Public school enrollment in Escalante dropped from 150 to 51 because there aren't any jobs.
"The traditional uses of that land were taken away from us," he said, adding the monument was created to stop grazing and mining.
Vicky Varela, Utah Tourism Office managing director, said she support Stewart's bill because it would generate tourism in the economically distressed region. A national park would serve as "welcome mat" to further development, including the jobs and amenities the come with that designation.
Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a nonprofit conservation group based in Kanab, delivered 700 letters to the subcommittee Thursday, including 238 from residents in towns near the monument.
Nicole Croft, executive director, said Utah's congressional delegation has repeatedly failed to listen to local residents who are benefitting from the monument.
"We were stunned by the volume of letters,” she said. “But we weren’t at all surprised by the community’s message for Rep. Stewart and President Trump: leave Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument alone.”
Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is among the groups that have sued Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, contending the president lacks authority to reduce the boundaries of a national monument.
The Sierra Club also issued a statement in response to Thursday's hearing.
"This bill doubles down on Trump’s wildly unpopular, and illegal, cuts to protections for our country’s public lands," said Dalal Aboulhosn, Sierra Club deputy legislative director.