Keeping up with public land shenanigans: Stewart’s H.R. 4558 Grand Staircase-Escalante National MonumentGrand Staircase-Escalante National MonumentKeeping up with public land shenanigans: Stewart’s H.R. 4558

By Lisa Rutherford

It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the shenanigans by Congressmen Bishop, Stewart and others when it comes to public lands. Having recently returned from a trip, I became aware of Stewart’s new bill, H.R. 4558, and listened to the Congressional subcommittee hearing held Dec. 14.

With the reduction of the existing Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), H.R. 4558 now proposes to establish three new national monuments where only one existed and a new national park, the Escalante Canyons National Park and Preserve.

At first blush, this sounds good. In fact, the bill’s title, “Grand Staircase Escalante Enhancement Act,” attempts to do just that — make it sound like a positive change. But is it?

The Dec. 14 House Federal Lands Subcommittee hearing was loaded with big “anti-federal land” guns, and the four present to testify included only one person opposed to Stewart’s bill. To say it was a fair hearing has nothing to substantiate that claim. The question and answer session between Congressman Stewart and Congressman McClintock, chair of the subcommittee, seemed almost rehearsed. Stewart’s questioning of Susan Hand, a Kanab business owner, consisted of Stewart’s usual offensive and aggressive tactics that he uses while dealing with those who do not agree with him while his interaction with those who support his bill was so syrupy as to be embarrassing at times.

Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock was one of those present to testify. With 93 percent of Garfield County’s land being federal land, he had much to say about the stress it has placed on limiting their economic development. In fact, he made it clear that he was tired of Grand Staircase propaganda and was at the hearing to “tell the truth” — apparently as he sees it!

While population and jobs have increased in Garfield County, compared to the rest of Utah they pale. However, a little search of real estate for sale in the county reveals that a simple ranch-style home in Escalante goes for nearly $300,000, another two-story goes for $500,000 in Hatch, and even a manufactured home in Panguich is listed for $70,000. If the area has such economic problems, how can housing prices such as these exist? While the area’s population has declined since the late ‘90s, such as Escalante’s decline of 500 people, perhaps the exact reasons have not been fully explored.

Stewart’s bill would establish a “Management Council” (MC) consisting of seven members: one from the Department of Interior, two from the Garfield County Commission, two from the Kane County Commission, one Utah state legislator representing Kane and Garfield Counties or both, and one at-large representative appointed by the president. During the hearing, Congressman Gallego asked Commissioner Pollock why he thinks locals could manage the land better than the federal government. Pollock got very aggressive when pushed on this topic and said they would not be managing the land; they would coordinate with the BLM, and the federal government would still provide funds. But the bill states that the council “shall develop and implement the comprehensive management plans.” So while the council makes major decisions, federal employees on our tax dollars would their “lackeys.”

The MC would be loaded with people who do not support our public lands being administered by the federal government and have mineral-extraction and grazing agendas for public land use. Without any science to back up the practice, the bill states that the MC shall ensure that “grazing domestic livestock on lands with the Escalante Canyons National Park and Preserve shall continue to be exercised and enhanced in perpetuity.”

It’s clear in the bill text and was pointed out by the subcommittee’s minority ranking member Congresswoman Hanabusa that there is no map included to define where these areas to be controlled by locals would be, the bill would create disjoined smaller monuments, and although the creation of a new national park would normally have broad support, the history leading up to this one causes problems. With 2.8 million comments in favor of keeping all national monuments intact and the fact that Sec. Ryan Zinke refused to meet with locals, bitter feelings exist. She also observed that there were no BLM or National Park Service representatives at the hearing, also a major oversight in my opinion.

Although a major focus of the hearing seemed to be all the tourism the new park would generate, Stewart was quick to add that tourism is not enough to sustain these rural economies (in spite of or perhaps because of the house prices I noted previously). There was little discussion about the PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) money that these rural counties receive. It seemed that the subcommittee members and Pollock preferred to forget that they do get money (although “pennies on the dollar” as they call it) to make up for lack of local use of these lands. Stewart emphasized that the people want ranching, which is a big part of Mormon history — but is subsidizing their ranching a good use of our tax dollars?

The bill appears to be “growing” government, not shrinking it, as one would expect from Congressmen who harp on the size of government. With more than one NM to manage, this will take more time and money, not less. And already Congress has reduced funding for our public lands. This seems to be one more way that those who represent Utah in the halls of Congress are attempting to show that the Federal Government can’t manage lands properly, by tightening purse strings while adding to management demands.

I find it interesting that Congressman Stewart and others during the hearing focused some of their comments on the lack of livable wages in communities that surround the GSENM yet seem to have no problem with the poor wages in Washington County, a county he represents. He used low tourism wages to help support the contention that the monument is holding back growth and development in the counties affected by the designation. Yet Washington County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation in spite of some of the lowest wages in the state. In fact, Hand testified that she pays her employees $10–$20 per hour and provides benefits. So not all jobs in the monument area pay poorly.

Former Utah Governor Mike Levitt was on the panel to emphasize how political the naming of GSENM was and how it was done behind closed doors. Hand testified, however, that there was a good public process leading up to the establishment of GSENM, so one must wonder where Levitt and others were at that time. Congressman Lowenthal reminded Levitt that the 105th and 106th Congresses ratified the designation, and a federal court in Salt Lake City upheld the legality and asked, “If this is such a problem, why did Bush do nothing?”

Lisa Rutherford is a resident of Ivins and serves as an adviser to Conserve Southwest Utah.

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