A monumental dispute Utah park is focus: Develop vs. conserve

March 23, 1997|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOULDER, Utah -- In this wild blue yonder, rock canyons rise like steeples and vistas stretch for 60 miles. Western bluebirds flit across a cloudless sky. And junipers have deep roots in the sand.

But conflict has intruded upon this landscape. A graffito painted across a bridge delivers a message: Keep it like it was.

This sentiment echoes through the towns around the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.

When President Clinton declared these 1.7 million acres a monument last fall, he set off a divisive land war that people in these parts compare hyperbolically to the Middle East.

The battle is as much about the land as what's below it. A bounty of oil, natural gas and coal rests in the red hills.

Many townspeople believe that Clinton's proclamation, which allows hunting, camping and grazing but prohibits new mining, further dooms their economically depressed communities or destines them to become tourist spots.

Environmentalists say that protecting this wilderness -- with its wealth of geology, paleontology, botany and animal life -- is a necessity. But they fear that Clinton's words may not be strong enough to save this place.

The proclamation, designed to clarify land use, may have only confused things: Conoco, an oil company with leases in the monument, is looking to drill.

Counties are said to be carving roads out of dirt paths, a move that has resulted in charges of trespassing.

And weeks ago, Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett introduced a bill to "codify" the meaning behind the monument. His interpretation allows for mining and drilling, leading environmentalists to charge that if his effort succeeds, the hoped-for protection will be lost.

"They ought to declare it a national disaster, not a monument," says Paul Hansen, a retired rancher who lives in Boulder. "This ranks right up there with the Arkansas floods and Florida hurricanes."

To express his displeasure, he wears a black hat emblazoned with the words "Willy's World" and the boundaries of the area.

Others vent their anger in other ways. In Kanab, schools closed in protest. And farther north in Escalante, a replica of the president was hanged in effigy on Main Street, dangling there for days.

In the next three years, the Bureau of Land Management -- the government group in charge -- and an advisory group will develop a plan for the monument. But in the meantime, cowboys, politicians, developers and others have a perspective on what should be done.

Rhetoric nothing new

Terry Tempest Williams, a naturalist and writer who grew up in this area and spoke during the Clinton signing, says the rhetoric is nothing new, particularly in the context of Utah's battles with the federal government.

"There's something in us that wants to use up everything around us," she says. "There's also something in us that wants to hold on to silence and majesty and beauty.

"Perhaps the bridge between the two is the personal experience we find in these wild places."

Amid the fighting, the one place that offers silence and solitude is the monument itself.

This area was the last in the continental United States to be mapped. Names in the monument -- Little Death Hollow, Scorpion Gulch and No Man's Mesa -- allude to how untamed the land is.

The monument is divided into three geographic areas: the Grand Staircase -- a sequence of cliffs and plateaus with vibrantly colored rocks; the Kaiparowits Plateau -- the most rugged, isolated area and also the site of controversial deposits; and the Escalante Canyons, the jewel with 1,000 miles of labyrinthine canyons.

"These lands remind us that we're connected to something larger than ourselves," Williams says. "And I think they infuse us with humility.

"The country wraps itself around you and keeps you in check. It doesn't have singular land forms. It is just space -- enormous, magnificent space."

Craig "Sage" Sorenson, outdoor recreation planner for the Escalante area, is both enthralled by beauty of the land and concerned about misuse.

There are only a few paved roads, but he points toward roughly bladed dirt paths where counties have claimed ownership.

Environmentalists say that these roads are not intended to make the monument more accessible. "They were trying to scar the land so it couldn't qualify as wilderness," says Scott Groene of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

"There are a lot of archaeological sites in these areas. Time after time, it has been shown that when you increase access to these areas, you lose those values."

Counties within the monument have filed claims saying these roads already existed, and an 1866 mining law allows for their development.

So far, a judge has required counties to give the BLM notice of their activities, but the rest must be battled out in court.

Groene laments the potential effect: "If the counties say, 'We can do what we want on those,' you've pretty much rendered this national monument into just a sacrifice."

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