Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: The Politics of Environmental Preservation

Article excerpt

At first the terrain is open and undulating, but as we work our way into the gulch the walls begin to close in and tower above us. It is as though with each stride we are going farther and farther back into time and deeper and deeper into geologic history. We are about to encounter, in the words of novelist Sherwood Anderson, "the bigness outside ourselves."--From "Coyote Gulch" in The Wilderness Within: Reflections on Leisure and Life by Daniel L. Dustin, PH.D.

On September 18, 1996, President Clinton stood on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and proclaimed the establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a 1.7-million-acre swath of land in southern Utah. On the face of it, the Clinton administration's decision to unilaterally protect the federal plot that has been described as a "geologic wonderland" seemed courageous. Indeed, invoking the seldom used power granted presidents by the Antiquities Act of 1906, Clinton's announcement infuriated opponents, both political and philosophical, of the monument's creation. At the same time, actor and environmentalist Robert Redford applauded the president's action, declaring that "saving these lands was a moral responsibility."

The process that led up to the president's proclamation, including the site from which he made the announcement and the continued fallout from it, provides a fascinating case study of the politics of environmental preservation. It is a case study replete with the apparent circumvention of the legislative process for the sake of political expediency, and several compromises that threaten to undermine the intent of the proclamation itself. And while it is hard to deny the potential significance of the outcome -- the protection in perpetuity of an extraordinary physical and cultural resource -- the question we are left to ponder is, In a democracy, does the end in this case justify the means used to obtain it?

Invocation of the Antiquities Act

The Antiquities Act of 1906 was originally intended to protect Native American heritage sites from pilfering by souvenir hunters. Proponents of the act understood that the legislative process worked slowly and that waiting for Congress to pass protective legislation could result in irreparable damage to resources that were in imminent danger. The act was intended to give the president the executive power to set aside the minimum amount of space necessary to safeguard a resource without going through a cumbersome and time-consuming legislative process. Many of our most popular national parks, including the Grand Canyon, were first protected in this way. On the whole, however, the Antiquities Act has been used sparingly, and Republican leaders have used it more than their Democratic counterparts have.

One of the main reasons the Antiquities Act has been called upon so infrequently in recent years is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA institutionalized a concern for the environment that didn't exist when the Antiquities Act was passed in 1906. NEPA insists on public involvement in the planning process through public hearings and environmental impact assessments that must accompany proposals that might have detrimental effects on the environment. Moreover, NEPA set up a special advocacy group within the White House, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), to guarantee that public involvement.

Imagine the uproar following the president's proclamation when it was discovered that Kathleen McGinty, the chair of the CEQ, was instrumental in advising the president to bypass NEPA and employ the powers vested in him by the Antiquities Act to create Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Although McGinty denies the insinuation, skeptics wonder why NEPA's principal guardian would urge the president to bypass the democratic process she was responsible for overseeing.

The Politics of Environmental Preservation

Critics of President Clinton's actions are quick to proffer several points. …