GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. -- Hoping to galvanize his support among conservation-minded voters, President Clinton yesterday declared 1.7 million picturesque acres of federal land in southern Utah a national monument.
"Seventy miles north of here lies some of the most remarkable land in the world," Clinton said, bathed in sunlight and framed by the spectacular South Rim of the Grand Canyon. "Today, we are keeping faith with the future."
The land set aside is known for its sandstone cliffs, natural arches and bridges, red rocks and deep canyons. The site, to be known as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, is home to Native American art carved into canyon walls, cliff dwellings and other artifacts.
On the land, however, is one of the nation's largest coal reserves, whose potential value runs well into the billions of dollars. Several companies hold coal leases there.
The president and Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt said they would seek a deal in which the two principal mining companies with claims in the area -- PacifiCorp and Andalex Resources, a Dutch firm -- would trade their leases for federal mineral lands elsewhere.
The decision was denounced by Republican leaders, especially those in Utah, as an election-season stunt. They argued that the move was intended to shore up Clinton's support among environmentalists in Western states such as California, Colorado and even usually Republican Arizona.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah asserted that the president was declaring "war on the West."
The state's other Republican senator, Robert F. Bennett, said: "In the same instant Bill Clinton claims to be the environmental president, he locks up 62 billion tons of the cleanest, most environmentally beneficial coal in the United States."
Residents of Kanab, Utah, who say they fear that about 900 coal-mining jobs will be lost, protested yesterday by flying flags at half-staff, closing business and city offices, and holding a rally.
To make the designation -- which does not require congressional approval -- Clinton relied on a 1906 law, the Antiquities Act. The law, which permits presidents to designate areas as national monuments, was intended originally to protect small anthropological digs. But as Clinton and other speakers stressed yesterday, the law was used by President Theodore Roosevelt only two years after it was enacted to protect the Grand Canyon.
Charles Wilkinson, a professor at the University of Colorado who has written widely about the history of Western land use, noted that Roosevelt's decision was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, which affirmed his right to act as he did. Since then, White House officials said, the law has been used about 100 times by presidents of both parties.
In some cases, the designation has led to the formation of national parks or wilderness areas. Many other areas have remained "monuments," which affords less protection than a park designation but makes it difficult for mining companies to press their claims.
Presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson used the Antiquities Act to set aside Zion National Park. Herbert Hoover used it for Death Valley. Franklin D. Roosevelt used it for Grand Teton. Jimmy Carter did so for 3 million acres in Alaska.
"Today, we add a new name to that list: the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument," Clinton said. "On this remarkable site, God's handiwork is everywhere."
Yesterday, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore stood on the bluffs overlooking the famous canyon as hawks, eagles and vultures patrolled the skies. Both told those assembled that they had first encountered the Grand Canyon in 1971, in separate visits.
Gore said he and his new bride, Tipper, threw a tent into the trunk of his Chevy Impala and drove through the Utah country that was set aside yesterday, until they arrived at the Grand Canyon.
Clinton told the crowd, which included Robert Redford, that one of the happiest times of his life was when he found himself all alone, on a rock, as evening descended on the canyon.
"And for two hours, I sat and I lay down on that rock and I watched the sunset," Clinton said. "I watched the colors change layer after layer after layer. I could have sat there for two days if the sun had just taken a little longer to set.
"Even today, 25 years later, in hectic, crazy times, in lonely, painful times, my mind drifts back to those two hours I was alone on that rock. And it will be with me till the day I die. I want more of those sights to be with all Americans for all time to come."
Redford said he mentioned the idea to Clinton three years ago but heard just five days ago that the plan was going ahead. When asked if he thought Clinton had a good environmental record, he paused, smiled and said: "Today."
Asked afterward whether the administration saw yesterday's action as a first step toward the creation of another national park, Babbitt noted how enormously contentious such environmental decisions are today.
"That question will not be ripe in our lifetime," he said with a chuckle. "We've got to leave some of these decisions for our children."
Pub Date: 9/19/96