Rep. Chris Stewart proposes national park in Grand Staircase-Escalante

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SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, plans to introduce legislation to create a new national park in a piece of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The proposed Escalante Canyons National Park comes on the heels of President Donald Trump dramatically downsizing the 1.9 million-acre monument.

“We feel that’s a win-win. You love tourism? So do I,” Stewart told KSL. “People will come for a national park, but many of them won’t come for a monument.”

Trump signed a proclamation Monday breaking the 21-year-old national monument into three smaller sections — the 211,983-acre Grand Staircase, the 551,117-acre Kaiparowits and the 243,241-acre Escalante Canyons. The Bureau of Land Management would continue to oversee federal land outside the new monuments.

“Look, for all those people who say monuments are good for tourism, a national park is even better,” said Stewart, whose district includes Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Utah’s sixth national park would be funded to include “all the things that come with it,” such as roads, restrooms, campgrounds, trails and a visitor center, Stewart said.

“A lot of this land is as beautiful as Bryce, as beautiful as Zion. It really, truly is national park worthy,” he said.

The size and exact location of the proposed park is unclear. Stewart said it would be about 100,000 acres, but Trump's monument decree sets the area called Escalante Canyons at more than 243,000 acres.

Noel Poe, Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners board president, said Stewart's proposal feels like an attempt to "shut up the critics of shrinking of the monuments, and I don't think it will."

A retired National Park Service senior superintendent, Poe said he would be concerned about lodges, cabins and other construction inside the park.

"We want to see the Escalante Canyons and the entire monument with as little development as possible," he said. "I really like what the BLM has done here with Grand Staircase where the development is in the communities."

Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners is among a number of groups to sue Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over the president's decree breaking up the monuments.

Scott Groene, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance executive director, said Stewart's proposal appears to be "just an act of smoke and mirrors."

"All of the talk about a national park is just a diversion from the Utah delegation's intent to remove protection from 2 million acres of southern Utah," he said.

Only Congress can set aside land for a national park, while a president has power under the Antiquities Act to designate a national monument.

“People will come for a national park, but many of them won’t come for a monument.” - Rep. Chris Stewart

Stewart and fellow Utah Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and John Curtis outlined legislation Tuesday to give congressional approval to new monument boundaries and detail land uses.

Curtis, whose district includes Bear Ears, said now that the president has created two new monuments in southeastern Utah, Congress must ensure they are managed the right way.

A bill that he, Bishop, Stewart and Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, are co-sponsoring would create the Shash Jaa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument in the Bears Ears area, and a framework to conserve historic and natural resources within their boundaries, including an archaeological protection unit.

The legislation also proposes what Bishop called a "novel" approach to management that would give Native American tribes and local governments power to make decisions, rather than the "symbolic" role under the former designation.

"This is not simply a token advisory role," said Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Curtis said the legislation mandates "boots-on-the-ground" federal law enforcement and protects not only the new monuments but the former Bears Ears monument areas from mining and natural resources extraction.

"A lot of people are worried that the change (Monday) will mean that all of a sudden you'll have oil rigs popping up all over the place. This ensures that won't happen and can't happen," he said.

Groene said Curtis' bill on Bears Ears is "just an effort to legislate" its demise.

"It's basically an admission by the Utah delegation that their concern that President Trump does lack the authority to repeal the monument by executive order, so they're setting up the backup by doing it as legislation," he said.

The Native American Rights Fund opposes Curtis' bill, saying it purports to speak for the tribes the group represents — Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni — though no one has spoken to them.

"This bill does nothing more than dilute tribal rights and authority and would place them in a worse position than they are now," said attorney Natalie Landreth.


Stewart said the Trump administration is aware of his proposal to create another national park.

If Utah and the state's congressional delegation support the proposed national park, Zinke said the Department of the Interior "would be supportive of that as well."

His report to Trump released Tuesday recommends "exactly what Congressman Stewart is doing" — determining whether a national monument would be better suited to becoming a national park or other designation.

Zinke said he looks forward to watching the national parks bill work its way through Congress, although he said earlier efforts have failed.

Gov. Gary Herbert lauded the idea of a new national park.

"That really could bring in some significant tourism and travel, and enhance economic opportunity," the governor told KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show" on Tuesday, urging all sides to "tone down the rhetoric" and try to come together.

Paying for a new national park when the nation’s parks, including the five in Utah, are hundreds of millions of dollars behind in upkeep could be a challenge.

Stewart proposes as one option to use natural resources-based revenues from onshore and offshore oil and gas royalties to cover as much as half of national park maintenance costs.

Another consideration, he said, is the “backpack tax,” a fee on camping gear similar to the surcharge on ammunition that funds wildlife management.

Stewart said the he’s still looking at the National Park Service’s proposed entrance fee increase.

“That’s tough,” he said, adding he would prefer to use other funding sources. “But if we can’t do some of these other things, we may be required to do that.”

The congressman favors mining and other natural resources extraction in areas that would no longer be part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante, though he said it should be market-driven.

“It’s one of the objectives we’ve tried to achieve,” he said.

But Stewart added it would be years and years and millions of dollars before any mining could occur. The land would still be subject to federal rules and regulations.

“It’s not like tomorrow someone’s going to go out there and buy 100,000 acres and start open-pit mining,” he said.

Stewart said he would never support selling the land.

Several environmental groups and Native American tribes have already sued Trump and Zinke over the breaking up of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. Utah's congressional delegation, however, doubts the proposed legislation would head off a court battle.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Sam Penrod

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Dennis Romboy
Dennis Romboy is an editor and reporter for the Deseret News. He has covered a variety of beats over the years, including state and local government, social issues and courts. A Utah native, Romboy earned a degree in journalism from the University of Utah. He enjoys cycling, snowboarding and running.


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