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Utah is featuring prominently in a fight over President Barack Obama's expected designation of a national monument in Nevada.
The U.S. House on Wednesday approved amending a spending bill for the U.S. Department of Interior that would block using funds for presidential monument designations in 17 western counties including Utah's Kane, Garfield and Wayne counties.
If the measure, sponsored by Republican Congressman Cresent Hardy, R-Nev., becomes law, it will likely be too late to thwart the Obama Administration's push to set aside 703,000 acres in south-central Nevada, which Hardy represents. As early as Friday, the White House will use the Antiquities Act to designate the Basin and Range National Monument in Lincoln and Nye counties, about 100 miles west of Cedar City, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.
All four of Utah's members of Congress voted for Hardy's amendment.
Rep. Rob Bishop argued that Democratic presidents starting with Jimmy Carter have misused the act, adopted in 1906, to establish large monuments against the wishes of local people for reasons that have little to do with protecting antiquities.
"It was used as a political weapon and abused as a political weapon," Bishop said during debate Wednesday. "The saddest part is there is absolutely no input that has to be guaranteed by this act.
"The people in the counties that are designated in this amendment need to have the right to have some input in how land decisions are [made]," he continued. "Give them the chance to be heard because, under the present Antiquities Act, they are not heard."
Democrats criticized Hardy's amendment.
Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva said the measure would undercut conservation of America's most sensitive lands and jeopardize progress toward making protected landscapes more reflective of the nation's cultural diversity.
"It should be noted that an important factor in the designation process is the First Americans, the Native Americans, their legacy, their heritage, and their cultural and historic resources on the land," Grijalva said. "President Obama has been using the Antiquities Act to diversify the story of public lands with new designations such as the Cesar Chavez National Monument in Keene, Calif."
In a 222-206 vote largely along party lines, the House passed the amendment, which still must clear the Senate to become law. There is no guarantee senators will even consider it when they assemble their own version of the spending bill.
The vote comes as Nevadans brace for the Basin and Range designation.
The Post credits the influence of Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, soon to retire after serving 33 years in the Senate, for getting the slice of the Mojave Desert on the president's radar. The proposed monument covers much of the Golden Gate Range, the Garden and Coal valleys on either side and the sculptural landmark known as "City" by artist Michael Heizer.
Reid, who grew up in Searchlight, Nev., has an enduring love of the desert, picturing it in his mind as he goes to sleep, according to the Post. Under his watch as a senator, about 3.4 million acre in Nevada have been protected as wilderness, primarily in the mountain ranges that crease the Great Basin.
To the delight of conservationists, Obama has designated or expanded 16 monuments in his time in office. Nine totaling 1.1 million acres have been in Western states most recently, Colorado's Browns Canyon.
Many rural Utahns, still smarting from President Clinton's 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, fear he intends to set aside more of Utah's scenic, archaeologically rich, red rock desert.
Hardy's amendment targets counties in Arizona, California, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah where there is "significant local opposition" to monument designations.
Brian O'Donnell, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, called the move "one more step toward the Cliven Bundy agenda," referring to Hardy's support of the Nevada rancher famous for his defiance of federal land managers that sparked an armed standoff on his Bunkerville ranch in 2014.
"The Antiquities Act has been our nation's greatest conservation law. Half the national parks started as monuments," O'Donnell said. "It's a great tool and the places that have been preserved have made America a better county.
"Hardy's bill wants to gut it."
Oddly, the amendment doesn't include Utah's San Juan County, where three active monument proposals target Cedar Mesa, Bears Ears and surrounding lands. And Emery County, home to the San Rafael Swell, which Interior vetted for monument status, also was not listed.
But Wayne County has plenty to worry about, according to county commission chairman Newell Harward of Loa. He said many residents oppose the Greater Canyonlands proposal, which would extend a monument all the way from the national park to Hanksville.
County residents worry about public access, grazing, oil sands development and roads, Harward said.
"There is concern that it would squeeze us into a corner," he added.
Wayne has few people and lots of public land. About 93 percent of the county is federal and it already hosts pieces of Capitol Reef and Canyonlands national parks and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Similar concerns abound in rural Nevada, where most of the land is under federal control, but with the added twist of military readiness. Much of the proposed Basin and Range monument lies under airspace associated with the Nevada Test and Training Range.
"Closing down this vast area of land for generations to come would adversely impact Nevadans' ability to choose how we want to grow economically, and it would hamper our military members from sharpening their skills," Hardy wrote in a May 7 statement imploring the president to shelve the plan. "I do not specifically oppose national monuments or designating specific lands as preserves, but doing so at the direct detriment of our military operations puts at risk the very protection of the freedoms that allow us to enjoy those lands."
But O'Donnell said many Nevadans support the monument, noting a recent public hearing in Las Vegas, where only one person among the hundreds who lined up to speak opposed preserving an entire basin. Coal and Garden valleys connect with eight separate mountain ranges. The 8,000-foot Golden Gate is in the middle.
"This is a type of landscape that is not represented in the National Landscape Conservation System," he said. "In Nevada, a lot of mountains are protected, but not the valleys especially ones that are this intact and unspoiled."