American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Congress Accuses the Administration of Huge Missteps on the Grand Staircase

The following "Government Affairs Report" column by GAP Senior Advisor John Dragonetti is reprinted from the June 1997 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists. It is reprinted with permission.

Last September, President Clinton invoked the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate approximately 1.7 million acres in the rugged, remote region of southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Utah legislators were incensed by the action, calling it politically motivated to support the President's re-election, an abuse of power granted under the 1906 act, and a blatant attempt to bypass congressional approval. They were particularly aggravated by what they characterized as the clandestine process utilized by the Administration. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) quoted an August 5, 1996 memorandum by Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chairwoman Kathleen McGinty in which she instructed staff to be careful discussing the project with others because "any public release of the information would probably foreclose the...option to proceed." A major concern of the Utah delegation is the withdrawal from potential mining of the huge volume of coal reserves in the monument's Kaiparowits Plateau and the consequent loss of revenue to the state's school trust funds.

Despite the objections from Utah, section 2 of the Antiquities Act does give the President authority to announce by public declaration the creation of historic landmarks, the preservation of prehistoric and historic structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the federal government to become national monuments.

The presidential proclamation recognized valid existing rights to the land as well as the state's fish and wildlife regulations, but it warned unauthorized persons from settling upon, removing materials from, or harming any feature of the monument subsequent to its designation. The President's declaration ordered Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to manage the monument employing his Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Further, the Secretary was required to prepare a management plan for the monument by September, 1999.

The President issued his pronouncement while visiting Arizona's Grand Canyon some 75 miles south of the Monument's location, apparently without notifying any of Utah's political leaders from either party -- the highest ranking Utah official at the event was the mayor of a small town near the new monument. During the announcement, President Clinton explained that the land would remain open for multiple uses but only mentioned hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and grazing. The President also expressed a need for the federal government to resolve issues involving state and school trust properties captured within the monument's boundaries in reference to the state's concerns over lost revenues.

The designated acreage, larger than the combined states of Delaware and Rhode Island, is exceptionally distinctive for its numerous geological, paleontological, historical, archeological and biological attributes. The region contains large arches, natural bridges, and winding canyons formed out of brightly colored sedimentary rocks. Paleontologists have identified a host of marine and brackish water vertebrates, and believe the area contains one of the nation's best records of Late Cretaceous terrestrial life. Evidence indicates that the ancient Anasazi and Fremont cultures occupied the site as well as the more recent Southern Paiute and Navajo tribal groups. The Powell expedition mapped the region in 1872 followed by early Mormon habitation.

Perhaps of primary interest to the geological community, and specifically to history of geology buffs, the monument includes much of the immense geological feature christened the Grand Staircase by one of the grand old men of western geology - Clarence Edward Dutton (1841-1912). Dutton, an army officer and geologist, was detailed to the Powell Survey in 1875, then roamed the plateau regions of the west for the next decade doing geological research during which time he identified this striking geological feature.

BLM plans to hold a conference in early October to examine opportunities for scientific research in the monument. Information on the conference, to be held at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, will be available on the BLM homepage.

The reaction to the President's decision to designate the monument has resulted in a torrent of legislation to limit the chief executive's authority to establish national monuments. In early May, hearings were held in the Senate and the House of Representatives by their respective subcommittees with jurisdiction over public lands. The Senate hearing focused on Sen. Bob Bennett's (R-Utah) bill, S. 357, to allow recreation and wildlife, watershed, timber, oil, gas, and mineral development in the monument. Bennett believes his bill merely confirms the legal definition of multiple use the President used in his speech and forces the Administration to affirm the promises made in announcing the monument's designation. This claim is disputed by Babbitt and McGinty who argue that the President did not include mineral development in his proclamation, wishing to protect the monument land from coal mining. Instead of mineral development, they suggest land exchanges should take place at fair market value, a practice that has already caused a major controversy surrounding the New World Mine site near Yellowstone National Park. The House hearing focused on H.R. 1127, sponsored by House parks subcommittee Chairman Jim Hansen (R-Utah), that requires approval from Congress, the governor, and the state legislature for proposed monuments larger than 5,000 acres.

The debate will persist over the next several months as many congressional representatives from the western states continue to introduce legislation placing limitations on presidential authority under the Antiquities Act relative to their states. In addition to S. 357 and H.R. 1127, legislation includes two bills introduced by Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), H.R. 596 and H.R. 597, which would mandate an act of Congress to enlarge or create national monuments nationwide and in Idaho, respectively; Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Washington) has introduced H.R. 413 to establish similar requirements for the state of Washington; and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) has indicated his intention to introduce legislation subjecting monument designations to public participation as required by the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. For obvious reasons, these bills all face the threat of a presidential veto, which would be difficult to override, but Congress may yet invoke the power of the purse and use the appropriations process to voice their concerns.

The Government Affairs Column is a bimonthly feature written by John Dragonetti. John Dragonetti is the Senior Advisor the American Geological Institute's Government Affairs Program.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs.

Last updated June 1, 1997

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