Washington » Rep. Rob Bishop says he has unearthed plans by the Obama administration to wield its power to designate multiple new national monuments in the West, including two that would snatch up thousands of acres in Utah.
That revelation by the Utah Republican set off a firestorm of criticism Thursday from congressional and state leaders in the Beehive State -- although the Interior Department insists the document on which Bishop bases his allegation is simply a draft memo outlining lands that may, in the future, deserve protection.
Two Utah swaths are mentioned in the document, marked "not for release" -- the San Rafael Swell in the south-central part of the state and Cedar Mesa in San Juan County. The exact size of potential monuments isn't mentioned.
Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff says Secretary Ken Salazar asked the department's bureaus to identify areas that might be worth further study as possible management areas or spots for Congress to step in and designate as protected.
"The preliminary internal discussion draft reflects some brainstorming discussions within [Bureau of Land Management], but no decisions have been made about which areas, if any, might merit more serious review and consideration," Barkoff said. "Secretary Salazar believes new designations and conservation initiatives work best when they build on local efforts to better manage places that are important to nearby communities."
The seven-page document states that "further evaluations should be completed prior to any final decision," including gauging congressional and public support.
Interior officials soon will get a sample of that support -- or the lack of it -- in person. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who will be in Washington, D.C., for a national governors gathering, will meet with Salazar on Sunday and Interior Undersecretary David Hayes on Monday to express his deep concerns.
"I will challenge federal officials," Herbert said in a news release, "to explain to me how they could possibly be in a better position to know what's best for our rural lands than those of us here on the ground in this state."
Environmental activists cheered Interior's efforts to look at potential monuments.
"Given the attention Congress gives to Utah wilderness, it should come as no surprise that the administration is considering protections for Utah's incomparable landscapes such as the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa," said Richard Peterson-Cremer, legislative director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "The success of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has demonstrated to Utahns and Americans the benefits of protecting these special places."
But Utah's congressional members expressed plenty of surprise -- and outrage.
They remember all too well 1996, when then-President Bill Clinton surprised and angered many Utahns by going to the Grand Canyon during the heat of his re-election campaign and unilaterally setting aside 1.7 million acres in Kane and Garfield counties as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
"It could be true" that no designation plans are afoot, said Bishop, head of the Congressional Western Caucus. "But history has taught us differently. We've been burned before, and I want to make sure we're not burned again."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, also fears another Grand Staircase-like maneuver.
"I don't think we should stand for it," Chaffetz said. "We need to fight it every step of the way."
That's what Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, vows to do. "The administration must put a stop to these secret backroom decisions that will so permanently affect Utah," he warned in a statement. "You better believe I'll do everything in my power ... to prevent this designation."
Sen. Bob Bennett sent a letter to Salazar saying he is "shocked and outraged."
"This is simply unacceptable," Bennett said, "and fuels my concerns about these documents and this administration's potential future actions."
Even Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, criticized the preliminary discussions without involving locals.
"At a minimum," he said, "this recent development only serves to stir up emotions about the lack of a public process."
On Utah's Capitol Hill, Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, and Sen. Kevin VanTassell, R-Vernal, opened bill files for resolutions opposing new national monuments.
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams complained that any move to designate one in his area, without consultation, would amount to backroom politics at its worst.
"That's what [President Barack Obama] campaigned on," Adams said, "no backroom politics."
Only 8 percent of San Juan County is private land; the rest is under state, federal or tribal control. Adams worries that any kind of limits on grazing or mining could harm the county's frail economy.
Besides, he said, San Juan County already is working to develop a land bill similar to Washington County's, which included wilderness designation and the concerns of ranchers and urbanites alike.
Area outfitter Marcia Hadenfeldt, while supportive of protecting Cedar Mesa, would like to know how a monument designation might affect Far Out Expeditions, a guide service in Bluff she runs with her husband, archaeologist Vaughn Hadenfeldt.
As chairwoman of the San Juan County Planning and Zoning Commission, she is sensitive to how land use affects the county's economy.
"We love the idea of protecting the ground we walk on. It's a perfect idea to protect Cedar Mesa," she said. "We want people to visit here both because it's how we make our living and because it's an incredible place."
But unless the government properly funded a new monument to pay for more rangers and tourist education, such status could damage the ancient and fragile ruins that make the area so spectacular.
"Without a guide, [tourists] are climbing on the walls," Hadenfeldt said.
The Interior document mentions 14 areas for possible designation as national monuments and three as conservation areas under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows a president to bypass Congress to designate certain areas for protection.
Tribune reporters Patty Henetz and Robert Gehrke contributed to this report.
San Rafael Swell » The San Rafael Swell, in south-central Utah, is a 75-by-40-mile giant dome made of sandstone, shale and limestone -- one of the most spectacular displays of geology in the country. The swell is surrounded by canyons, gorges, mesas and buttes, and is home to eight rare plant species, desert bighorns, coyotes, bobcats, cottontail rabbits, badgers, gray and kit foxes and golden eagles. Visitors to the area can find ancient Indian rock art and explore a landscape with geographic features resembling those found on Mars.
Cedar Mesa » For more than 12,000 years, generations of families from Paleo-Indian big-game hunters to LDS Church settlers traveled to the area now within southeastern Utah's Cedar Mesa region. Their stories are now buried among the area's estimated hundreds of thousands of prehistoric and historic sites. Cedar Mesa also contains thousands of largely intact cliff dwellings and open-air sites built between 750 A.D. and 1300 by later prehistoric farmers known as the Ancestral Puebloans or Anasazi.
Source: Interior Department memo (available at sltrib.com)