Clinton's monumental decision Wooing the Greens: Protection of Utah canyon lands wins conservationist support.

September 20, 1996

IN A CAREFULLY staged ceremony that looked suspiciously like a TV commercial, with inconvenient trees tied down to reveal the full panoramic vista to cameras, President Clinton made a dramatic pitch to capture the environmental vote Wednesday by declaring 1.7 million acres of Utah's desert and red rock canyon a national monument, off-limits to coal mining and development.

The president, seated at an incongruous desk and chair by the rim of the Grand Canyon, ended years of contention over the future of these federally owned lands in southern Utah by protecting the scenic, archaeologically rich western landscape in an act that does not require approval of Congress.

The late-campaign decision, called wise and bold by supporters and an arrogant "war on the West" by critics, aims at winning "green" votes across the U.S. at the low-risk expense of alienating decidedly Republican, small-population Utah. Vigorous opposition of Utah politicians and officials, citing loss of 900 mining jobs and millions of dollars, prompted the White House to hold the ceremony in neighboring Arizona. That the owner of major mining claims on the Utah lands is a foreign company made Mr. Clinton's action easier to take.

But the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument does not necessarily preclude mining in the canyon lands, which embrace 500-year-old Anasazi Indian rock paintings and cliff dwellings as well as the largest known reserves of coal in the U.S. Despite Mr. Clinton's personal stand against mining there, future decisions on land use in Grand Staircase-Escalante will depend on environmental impact reviews of proposals.

In fact, some would argue that locking away 62 billion tons of low-sulfur coal, preferred by power plants as less polluting, may be a greater loss for the overall environment. To meet that argument, the president offered a swap for coal mining rights on nearby federal lands.

Strongly buttressing his previously ambiguous standing with environmentalists, Mr. Clinton's action costs him little in more populous Western states, where mining claims are a less emotional political issue with voters than grazing and water rights and logging concessions.

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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