Magazine article Insight on the News

Up the Down (Grand) Staircase (Monument)

Magazine article Insight on the News

Up the Down (Grand) Staircase (Monument)

Article excerpt

During the middle of the 1996 presidential campaign, President Clinton stood on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Colorado and proclaimed that 1.7 million acres of federal land in Utah would be designated as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, locking the door to "wise-stewardship" management. This announcement was a great surprise to the folks in the Beehive State who, only a few days before, had been told that no decision had been made.

It also was a surprise to congressional watchdogs who thought that the passage of the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA, had provided a guarantee that the public, including local and state officials and elected members of Congress, would play a role in decisions to protect the environment. NEPA set up a special advocacy unit in the White House--the Council on Environmental Quality, or CEQ--to facilitate this participation. The current chair of CEQ, Kathleen McGinty, once testified before a Senate committee that "NEPA anticipated today's call for enhanced local involvement and responsibility, sustainable development and government accountability."

When the House Resources subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands started to look into the Grand Staircase matter, McGinty and the Interior Department became less enthusiastic about government accountability. A request for documents brought a few paltry pieces of boilerplate. Finally, on Sept. 25, the full committee subpoenaed all records relating to the monument. Almost a month later, on Oct. 22, the documents appeared.

The publication of these documents in a staff report revealed how embarrassing they were. They showed that McGinty was the ringleader in concocting what the report called "a false paper trail" in an effort to avoid a court challenge of the president's action. Moreover, they detail McGinty's action in advising the president how to evade NEPA's requirements.

The gimmick was to use the authority in the 1906 Antiquities Act, legislation that was designed to protect American Indian artifacts and sites from souvenir hunters. The object was to allow the president to proclaim immediate protection of sites endangered by lawless actions. At the time the legislation was passed' no one anticipated that it could be applied to 1.7 million acres that faced no imminent threat.

But McGinty urged the president to use the Antiquities authority to get around NEPA requirements. She told him to write a letter to the interior secretary to initiate action. "Ordinarily, if the [Interior] Secretary were on his own initiative to send you a recommendation l for establishment of a monument," she wrote candidly, "he would most likely be required to comply with NEPA and certain federal land-management laws in advance of submitting his recommendation. …

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