Babbitt: Mistakes were made in creating Grand Staircase monument
SALT LAKE CITY — Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says the 1996 creation of a 1.7 million-acre national monument in southern Utah was a terrific idea that was poorly executed.
Babbitt said the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was one of the great environmental triumphs of the Clinton administration, but that he and President Clinton made a mistake when they announced the creation of the monument from Arizona with little warning to Utah officials.
Babbitt discusses the monument in his new book, “Cities in the Wilderness,” which he will be in Salt Lake City this weekend to promote.
Utah leaders were given no advance word of the 1996 announcement. The ceremony was held at the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, which didn’t help matters, Babbitt said.
Babbitt’s book recalls that the creation of the monument spawned lawsuits from the state of Utah and created a lot of hostility among southern Utah residents. At one point, both he and Clinton were hanged in effigy, “dangled from the lampposts of the streets of Escalante,” he said.
The Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation in September asked the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a lower court ruling last year that dismissed a lawsuit challenging the monument.
Attorneys for the Department of Justice and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance argued before a three-judge panel that former President Clinton was within his rights when he invoked the Antiquities Act to create the monument.
The judges have not indicated when they will rule.
“The creation of the Grand Staircase was a major chapter in the history of our public lands,” Babbitt said Monday from his law office in Washington, D.C. “As time goes on, more and more residents of Utah will come to see it as a great benefit for the entire state.”
Looking back, Babbitt called the conflicts that arose from the monument’s creation a great learning experience that has since helped shape how the Interior Department interacts with local governments.
“We certainly could have done a better job of advance consultation,” he said. “One of the great lessons of Grand Staircase was that need for advance consultation, which we (later) used across the West with great success. But traditionally, monuments were created in this way, at the 11th hour. In that context, Grand Staircase wasn’t all that different, but it taught me about how we can do it better.”
Today, the Interior Department has made partnerships and cooperation with local governments a priority, said Dan Dubray, a department spokesman.
“Secretary (Gale) Norton is familiar as a former Colorado state attorney general with land use conservation issues … that in the latter part of the past century have resulted in conflict rather than cooperation,” Dubray said.
Babbitt said he believes that there is plenty of room for improvement in how the nation’s public lands are managed today. Specifically, he wants more accountability with how federal money is spent on land-use issues and projects.
“Shouldn’t we have a national policy or national objectives for dealing with issues like sprawl, the depletion of our river systems and the destruction of our coastal landsfi” he asked. “For every acre we save as open space, we lose 10,000 or even 100,000 to development. And a lot of this unplanned development is being subsidized by federal programs and agencies.”
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page D2.