Utah Congressman Chris Stewart Hikes With Groups in Grand Staircase-Escalante To Talk About Land Issues
BOULDER, Utah – Since the beginning of human history, there have been fights about land.
Since then, things haven’t changed much.
“In this day and age, wilderness is our greatest asset,” said Tim Ridges. “There is nothing more valuable than irreplaceable wilderness.”
His opinion is why he decided to be part of a group hiking to Lower Calf Creek Falls in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Tuesday morning.
Of course, his main reason for going is that Utah Congressman Chris Stewart was also going to be part of the group.
“I’m concerned about our public lands in general. I love this place,” said Ridges, who lives in nearby Boulder.
Stewart invited people with different opinions to hike with him and talk about Grand Staircase. Especially since Stewart feels the size of the Monument should stay reduced, like it was since President Trump signed a proclamation this past December, essentially splitting Grand Staircase-Escalante into three smaller units.
“You know what? If you just talk with people that are agreeing with you, you’re not doing your job,” said Stewart. “As a Congressman, that’s just the truth. I have a responsibility to listen to the other side to try and actually understand what it is they’re concerned about.”
Everybody in the group agrees there are certain places that should be protected in the Monument.
However, questions about how much should be protected, where the boundary lines are, and who should manage the land is where the disagreements begin.
It’s a controversial topic with another emotion, on both sides, to fill the 1.9 million acres the Monument was before the President’s proclamation.
“We’re really confident that the President does not have the authority to change boundaries on National Monuments, especially in the Grand Staircase where Congress has ratified parts of the boundaries and that it received congressional appropriations for over 21 years,” said Nicole Croft, who is the Executive Director of the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners group.
Croft was not on the hike.
“That’s our whole position. That if this can happen here, in a beloved National Monument that’s existed for 21 years, what’s next?” she said.
Stewart says it’s still too early in the process to decide on boundaries and on what should be protected.
“We’re still working on that,” he said. “It was just too big. It was nearly two million acres. Look, this is incredible land. We want to protect this. This is something special, and maybe at the same time create other economic opportunities for families”
It’s well known there are resources under the ground that could be mined.
Local leaders feel some mineral extraction and drilling would create jobs for a county that is economically depressed.
“I would love to see a place where we can raise our kids, keep our kids here, and have industry for them,” said Garfield Commissioner Jerry Taylor. “No, we’re not here to see off the public land. There are things in there we want to save and protect, but there are also areas that really aren’t as valuable, so to speak.”
It’s those areas that “aren’t as valuable” Taylor thinks could be looked at for some type of industry, including mining.
However, those in favor of leaving the Monument as it was feel all 1.9 million acres are valuable.
“Tourism is doing well. It’s booming. There’s business. It’s not like we need growth. The growth has happened,” said Ridges. “What we need to do is guide the protections of this place in a way that truly looks out for them.”
That protection is also why Congressman Stewart is looking at the possibility of creating a National Park within the Grand Staircase-Escalante boundaries.
“That’s the most stringent protection we can give something,” said Stewart.
The exact boundary of a possible National Park isn’t known.
There is also the question as to who would manage it.
“This would be a National Park in name only,” said Croft. “The National Parks Conservation Association does not support this bill. It would be managed by, instead of the National Park Service, by our county commissioners, which is a concern for us.”
When asked about who would manage the possible National Park, Stewart said it’s still too early in the process.
“I do hope there’s some local input and the final decision, frankly, hasn’t been made. That’s one of the things we want to talk with people about,” said Stewart. “We do believe it’s going to be a relatively small park. It’s not going to be the largest park in the state by quite a ways.”
Before all that, though, there are several lawsuits and challenges going through the court system to determine if Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument can be officially reduced.
Until that question is answered, Croft feels it’s difficult to understand why plans are already being made is if the President has the authority to reduce the size of a National Monument.
“We’ll do what we can to stop it,” said Croft.
Both sides know it’s going to be a long fight.
It seems, when it comes to land, it’s rarely easy.
“You can protect an area and you can create economic development,” said Stewart. “I think we can do both. Allow for the mineral extraction where it’s appropriate; protect the places where it’s not.”
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