Ashley Korenblat, owner of Western Spirit Cycling, is a strong advocate in the creation of the Greater Canyonlands National Monument. [Photo by Travis Holtby/ Moab Sun News]

In a move to circumvent the current gridlock in Congress, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), along with over 100 outdoor-related businesses, sent a letter to President Barack Obama, asking the re-elected president to designate 1.4 million acres of lands around Canyonlands National Park, an area referred to by the group as Greater Canyonlands, as a national monument.

Many of the landmarks within Greater Canyonlands, such as Indian Creek, Labyrinth Canyon and White Canyon, are landmarks used by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts every year. Areas that the OIA claimed are under threat from “proposed uranium and tar sands mining, and oil and gas development.”

The OIA and its business partners – which include such outdoor heavyweights as Patagonia, Mountain Hardware, The North Face and Black Diamond – believe that by changing the area to a national monument they will be able to better protect it for recreation and limit mining and mineral extraction. The letter, whose signees include over 40 Utah businesses, comes is in response to Congress’s refusal to pass any land-protection bills.

“It’s about managing the area for recreation jobs. It’s all about how recreation and resource extraction interact, because the system tends to favor resource extraction,” said Ashley Korenblat, the owner of Western Spirit Cycling.

By declaring Greater Canyonlands area as a national monument, the president would give the area many of the protections of a national park, without the need for congressional approval.

The letter puts forward an economic argument. It cites numbers from the Western Governors’ Association showing that the outdoor recreation industry in Utah supports 2.3 million jobs and brings in $256 billion a year in revenue.

“The economy (of Moab) is dependent on public land. The problem is that public lands are at risk,” Korenblat said. “If you look at the BLM maps, there are five million acres around Canyonlands (National Park) that are marked for possible tar sand and oil development.”

Local businesses, she continued, have invested based on the assumption of continued access and preservation of these areas. If the areas are adversely affected by mineral extraction, then businesses will be too.

“We want to prohibit some resource extraction. Recreation provides long-term sustainable jobs so we don’t want to accidently wreck it by allowing resource extraction to proceed on unequal footing,” Korenblat said. “We don’t want to kill the goose that is laying the golden egg.”

The issue of further protection of federal lands has come to the fore after Gov. Gary Herbert signed legislation in March ordering the federal government to relinquish control over nearly 30 million acres of public lands by 2014. The areas in question include national recreation areas, national forests, federal rangelands and the 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which was created by President Bill Clinton in 1996. The state government plans to lease some of these lands out for oil and gas development.

Clinton’s use of executive power to create Escalante National Monument outraged many Utah politicians, who claimed that they were not being given a say in what happened in their own state.

In a statement released last Monday night by Ally Isom, Utah governor’s spokeswoman, she stated, “We certainly hope we don’t have another (President) Bill Clinton approach to creating a monument. Canyonlands was established by statute and any expansion ought to be rightly created by statute as well.”

The idea that these federal lands should be controlled by the state, however, doesn’t fit with the law, said Mathew Gross, the media director at Southern Utah Wilderness Association (SUWA).

“When Utah became a state it relinquished any claim to federal land, in no uncertain terms,” Gross said.

Because this is federal land, the conversation needs to happen at the federal level, he said.

And that is what the OIA has tried to do by making this letter public, Korenblat said; foster conversation between all of Greater Canyonlands’ stakeholders.

“This is not some dead-of-night request,” she said.

The OIA is also using the commercial weight of its annual conference to put pressure on Gov. Herbert. The conference, which takes place in Salt Lake City, brings in 1,200 manufactures and $40 million each year. Threatening to move the conference elsewhere, the OIA has demanded that Herbert submit a satisfactory plan outlining his vision for outdoor recreation in Utah.

One of the factors that made the issue of Greater Canyonlands particularly important is that it represents a change from environmentalists fighting industry, to industry fighting industry, said Chris Baird, a Grand County councilman.

“It’s a war between industries in reality. Between mineral extraction and recreation,” he said.

If created, the new national monument would cover an area three times the size of the Canyonlands National Park. It would bring the protected area closer to the original size that Steward Udall, who served as Secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969, envisioned when he helped to create the park. Udall wanted the park’s boundaries to cover the entire cayonlands, all the way up to the rim, Baird said.

“(Canyonlands National Park) was passed based on an economic study from the University of Utah that showed that it would be a huge driver for tourism,” Baird said. It was many years before that became a reality, but “the same question holds true now. (The creation of Greater Canyonlands National Monument) would be a better investment.”

Not everyone agreed.

“This is not the highest benefit for use of the land,” said Gene Ciarus, Grand County Council chair.

Though Ciarus had not read the letter, he is familiar with the issue and believes that the OIA’s letter was premature. He feels that turning Greater Canyonlands into a national monument is unnecessary and takes power away from citizens. “Who are we protecting (Greater Canyonlands) from? Where is the damage that has been done?”

Southern Utah Wilderness Association displays a map of the Greater Canyonlands area that is proposed as a national monument and the activities that the organization feels threatens the landscape. [Courtesy Southern Utah Wilderness Association]