SALT LAKE CITY — A group of Utah lawmakers want to use a federal law to create a new state park within the boundaries of the former Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Under the Recreation and Public Purposes Act, the state can petition the U.S. Department of Interior to convey up to 25,600 acres of federal land a year for recreation purposes.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said the state could do that for three consecutive years and end up with a state park roughly the size of Arches National Park.
"I think we do as good a job if not better on our state parks," Noel said. "We would have the management in the state of Utah."
Noel added that most of the state's 43 parks were created using that law.
The discussion came up during a meeting last week of the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands during a presentation by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, on his bill to create a sixth national park in Utah called Escalante Canyons.
Stewart said he does not believe his bill will pass this year, but he is going to continue to push it forward to gain certainty for the area.
"It is not only possible but likely that a future administration that was opposed to Mr. Trump's decision would come in and change it," Stewart said. A new national park in that area would avoid the "political pingpong," he added.
President Donald Trump reduced the monument's boundaries and that of Bears Ears National Monument last December to the applause of Utah's GOP leaders and the dismay of environmental groups, Native American tribes and others.
Those reductions are now part of a lawsuit pending in federal court.
Some question if it is wise to pursue a national park for the area while the litigation is pending, but Sen. Dave Hinkins, R-Orangeville, said waiting until the lawsuit is resolved is the wrong approach.
"Courts shouldn't be making these decisions," he said.
Ashley Soltysiak, head of the Utah Sierra Club, said Stewart's bill seeks to legitimize Trump's monument reductions.
"We respectfully but adamantly oppose this legislation," she said, noting that its provision to have it governed by local representatives would leave the land vulnerable.
"(They) lack the qualification and the expertise to manage the land."
Later in the meeting, Kane County Commission Chairman Dirk Clayson took exception to that assertion, noting he suspects the people in charge of managing the National Mall in Washington, D.C., are making better decisions on it than "I would here in Utah. I wish the trust went back the same way with us."
He also blasted arguments urging monument protection of the lands.
"The general premise that lands are being protected because they are given a monument designation is absolutely false. Lands are being destroyed. Lands are being ill maintained and lands are being withheld from public access," he said.
"The idea that tourism is negatively affected by the reduction in the monument is absolutely false."
Both Clayson and Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock said their counties have experienced record visitation this year.
But Soltysiak and critic Lucy Malan complained that Trump's actions leave the lands open to development that will degrade the pristine vistas.
"These are the crown jewels of the world in terms of parks," Malan said.