As a former Canyonlands National Park ranger, Audrey Graham understands the value of expanding protection on the 1.4 million acres of federal lands surrounding the remote southeastern Utah park. As a current Grand County Council member, she also sees the benefits for the large number of businesses in Moab that depend on outdoor-related recreation.
But, as a realist, she understands not everyone will agree with her on both accounts.
Despite guaranteed serious opposition, more than 100 outdoor recreation-related businesses and the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) sent a letter Tuesday, Nov. 13, to President Barack Obama asking him to create the Greater Canyonlands National Monument in southeastern Utah.
Leaders of the group say continued and increasing threats to the 1.4 million acres of federal wildlands around Canyonlands National Park forced their hands to go the unpopular route – particularly in Utah – of asking the president for the designation.
Push-back from at least two members of Utah’s congressional delegation was swift.
“This is clearly a process that’s trying to do an end run around what is good for Utah,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who leads the House subcommittee on public lands.
He and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, whose congressional district includes much of the proposed monument, are drafting a letter to President Obama outlining their opposition to creating a new national monument using the Antiquities Act, a process that makes Republican leaders in the state irate.
A national monument is similar to a national park but can be established by the president without congressional approval. President Bill Clinton used that power to create the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah in 1996, outraging many Utah politicians.
Bishop notes the outdoors groups are not talking with Utah officials about how those lands should be managed and said this is one reason state leaders are fighting with the federal government for more control over these federally managed lands.
“If there was ever a poster child for why Utah needs to have a greater voice in its future,” Bishop said, “this kind of proposal is it.”
The congressman said a national monument designation would give the outdoor retailers “an economic monopoly” in the area to the detriment of ranchers, miners and ATV enthusiasts, among others.
Ashley Korenblat, president of Western Spirit Cycling in Moab, indicated in an OIA conference call with news media Tuesday that a legislative route toward protection for the Greater Canyonlands has seemed out of reach.
“Congress has not passed any land protection bills or are working on any anywhere in the country and the legislative option does not present things in a timely manner. We really do have threats happening,” Korenblat said. “One of the most powerful and quickest-moving tools is the national monument. We are open to other suggestions, but we are working toward that designation.”
Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, welcomes the outdoor industry to the cause and says he is not surprised that the group went right to the president for help.
“Utah politicians have been begging for this,” Groene said. “Governor [Gary] Herbert launched his attack on our public lands by demanding the federal government give him 30 million acres of land and by filing over 20 lawsuits about roads. That is not a way to invite discussion. People’s favorite places and their businesses are threatened and that triggers a reaction to seek protection.”
A spokeswoman for Herbert said the governor’s office was not contacted by anyone seeking the national monument designation and opposes its creation by the president.
“We certainly hope we don’t have another Bill Clinton approach to creating a monument,” Ally Isom said. “Canyonlands was established by statute and any expansion ought to be rightly created by statute as well.”
Leaders of the group that crafted the letter to the president said in a conference call Tuesday that they don’t plan on massive changes should Greater Canyonlands National Monument become a reality.
“Most [changes] would have to do with resource extraction,” Korenblat said. “The way the leasing system now works for oil and gas is that there are no specifics of where a drill pad and a road will go. Specifics are important. How do we make sure the recreation economy can continue and don’t kill the golden goose laying the golden eggs?”
Bruce Adams, chairman of the San Jan County Commission, was not familiar with the monument proposal, but said he doesn’t see the need.
“I’m surprised. I didn’t know there was this terrible problem,” he said. “We work closely with the Bureau of Land Management to keep ATV [all-terrain vehicle] people from going pell-mell across the land. There have been no extraction leases offered in that area for tens of years. Why do we need another layer of public land control for the residents of San Juan County?”
The OIA, international, national and local businesses that signed the letter to the president feel like now is a good time to pursue the designation with the Obama administration.
“This is not a sprint; probably more like an ultra-marathon,” said Utah’s Black Diamond Equipment President Peter Metcalf, one of the letter’s signers. “For the next four years we feel we have an administration open to this idea.”
He likened the issue to urban zoning that determines land adjacent to a residential community is incompatible with an oil refinery.
“It is incompatible to build bars or porn shops near a school or build a Walmart near the Temple,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we are against those things, it just means there is a place for all those things. I am not against the extractive industries. We all use the results.”
Other signers of the OIA letter include Backcountry.com, Petzl, Rim Tours, Moab Cliffs and Canyons and Canyon Voyages Adventure Co. More than 40 Utah companies are on the list.
Canyon Voyages co-owner Denise Oblak of Moab emphasizes the stable economy created by tourism, saying it should not be compromised by “the quick fix” of extractive industry jobs and the potential boom-and-bust cycle.
“The overall economy of the area is visitor-driven,” she said. “We have been part of the Moab economy for over 20 years and we’ve seen incredible improvements in the quality of life here because of the visitor economy. We want to protect areas that visitors come to see. The two can exist together if it’s done with foresight.”
Her husband and company co-owner, Don Oblak, said he’s heard grumblings that monument status would prevent people from having access to the area.
“I think there are ways to allow all recreational users to use it,” he said. “They may not all be in the same place together, but there is a place for everyone.”
Kirstin Peterson, co-owner of Rim Mountain Bike Tours in Moab, said monument designation “would go a long way toward protecting the resources that are very important for our economy.”
“Even if a national monument happened, there would be room for ATVs,” she said. “It would just give us a greater level of protection for responsible recreational use.”
Studies by the Outdoor Industry Association – which holds annual winter and summer market outdoor retailer conventions in Salt Lake City bringing in $42.5 million to the local economy – show the outdoor industry generated $646 billion in national sales and services in 2011 and provided 6.1 million jobs.
A 2006 report from the Outdoor Industry Foundation showed that the outdoor recreation industry contributes $5.8 billion to Utah’s economy and supports 65,000 jobs in the state. Additionally, nearly $300 million in annual sales tax revenues are collected from the industry and $4 billion is produced annually in retail sales and services, according to the report.
The idea of protecting the Greater Canyonlands area – which includes parts of San Juan, Grand, Wayne and Garfield counties – is not new. In fact, the area was considered for protection during National Park Service surveys in the 1930s. Proposals to incorporate the Greater Canyonlands into National Park Service management have come and gone through the years.
The most recent occurred in March 2011, when conservation groups – including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, Great Old Broads for Wilderness and the Natural Resources Defense Council – sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar requesting protection from “rampant off-road-vehicle abuse, proposed uranium and tar sand mining, and oil and gas development.”
Times-Independent reporter Steve Kadel and Tribune reporter Matt Canham contributed to this story.
ByBy Brett Prettyman
The Salt Lake Tribune