In 2017, Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican representing Utah’s second district in the U.S. House of Representatives, tried and failed to create a sixth national park in the state. This year, he’s trying again.

On Oct. 14, Stewart reintroduced the Grand Staircase-Escalante Act of 2017. This resolution would create the Escalante Canyons National Park and Reserve, formed out of the current Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

In the meantime, conservation groups are unsupportive of efforts to create a national park in the place of the monument.

“We absolutely think this [act] is going in the wrong direction,” said Sarah Bauman, executive director of the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, in an interview with the Moab Sun News. “This is not your traditional national park proposition.”

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was created in 1996 by President Bill Clinton and has been a point of political controversy for many years. Some Utah conservatives contend that Clinton’s designation “destroyed hundreds of rural jobs and the economic stability of local communities by locking up clean coal, endangering future grazing rights and cutting off multiple use and access,” as Stewart wrote in a 2017 op-ed.

In 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that drastically reduced the acreage of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. Utah Indigenous groups and conservation organizations opposed this executive order, and several groups — including the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Grand Staircase Escalante Partners and more — sued the Trump administration, saying that the “illegal proclamations by President Trump represent the single greatest attack a president has ever launched against America’s federal public lands,” as SUWA Executive Director Scott Groene said at the time.

The lawsuit, headed by the Wilderness Society, argues that the president does not have the authority to dismantle national monuments. As of June 2020, the federal defendants and plaintiffs have submitted summary statements to the court and await a decision.

Conservationist organizations such as GSENMP have been clear on their demands that the national monument’s boundaries be restored to their original 1.9 million acres.

“Past administrations have severely abused the purpose, spirit and intent of a century-old act known as the Antiquities Act,” said Trump after signing the 2017 order reducing the two southern Utah monuments.

The Antiquities Act was passed in 1906 under the Roosevelt administration and gives the president the authority to create national monuments, which are protected from mining, drilling, logging, grazing and other environmentally hazardous activities. As part of the longstanding political opposition to federal land management, state politicians have voiced their concerns that such monuments are too large and that the large tracts of federally protected land take away job opportunities and harm local economies.

“Protecting public lands doesn’t have to be a win-lose proposition,” wrote Stewart in 2017. “We can protect these precious antiquities and landscapes without making it impossible for the local communities to thrive.”

However, there is no specific language in the Antiquities Act that permits a president to alter or abolish existing national monuments. Trump’s 2017 order divided Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, formerly 1.9 million acres, into three smaller units: 211,983 acres to the Grand Staircase Unit, 551,117 acres to the Kaiparowits Unit and 243,241 acres to the Escalante Canyons Unit.

Opponents of the Grand Staircase-Escalante Act have expressed grievances about the shrunken size of the protected land, lack of protections for rare biodiversity and geology and the exclusionary structure of the area’s proposed local management council.

“I think a lot of people think, ‘oh, it’s a national park, that’s great! The land will be protected more,’ because traditionally, that’s the way it has worked in many places,” said Bauman. “But in reality, there isn’t anything in [the bill] that really shows a commitment to conservation. The priorities are grazing and recreational hunting.”

The 2017 Grand Staircase-Escalante Act that Stewart proposes would codify Trump’s shrinkage of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The new national park would occupy the Escalante Canyons Unit of the existing, reduced monument, while the remaining pieces would become two separate national monuments: the Grand Staircase National Monument and the Kaiparowits National Monument. Grazing would be permitted in these two new monuments and any land outside of the park and monuments would be fair game for leasing.

“We believe that it’s important to have a contiguous, not-split-up monument,” Bauman continued. “That’s important for wildlife corridors and mitigating climate change.”

Bauman reported that her organization partnered with the Escalante River Watershed Partnership to restore the Escalante River area, investing $10 million for brush removal and other conservation efforts. Reintroducing cattle to that area, she said, would undo years of work.

“We’re not anti-grazing, we’re anti-grazing in sensitive areas,” Bauman clarified.

Aside from the specific land designations in the act, Stewart’s proposal would additionally create a local management council to oversee the new monuments and park and transfer control of Hole in the Rock Road, established by Mormon pioneers in the 19th century, to the state.

The region is known for its biodiversity. Bauman reported that only 5 to 7% of the Grand Staircase-Escalante area’s natural resources and biodiversity have been inventoried and that climate change and human interference threaten to damage uncatalogued areas.

“There’s so much we don’t know about the monument, and we want a chance to understand first what’s there and then to conserve and protect it,” she said. “You can’t protect something unless you know that it exists.”

That protection, Bauman believes, shouldn’t be limited to primarily Western practices. GSENMP has placed renewed emphasis on including Indigenous voices in the area’s land management planning and has pointed out that the local management council proposed in Stewart’s act would be primarily composed of local government officials and presidential appointees.

“The [bill] recognizes the pioneer history of the Church of Latter-Day Saints by transferring Hole in the Rock Road to the state, but there’s nothing in there about the history of Indigneous people,” Bauman continued. “It’s not an inclusive representation, and the council needs people with conservation backgrounds.”

Stewart has not addressed these concerns in the weeks leading up to the 2020 general election, in which he will face off against Democratic challenger Kael Weston, who supports the return of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to its 1.9-million-acre status. Moreover, the funds required to maintain another national park in Utah, when the existing Mighty Five are already behind on infrastructure projects and maintenance, could stall the act once again.

If the new park and monuments are established as outlined, Bauman said, “It would be a true loss in terms of biological and cultural resources.”

Utah Rep. introduces legislation to make Grand Staircase-Escalante into a national park

“I think a lot of people think, ‘oh, it’s a national park, that’s great! The land will be protected more,’ because traditionally, that’s the way it has worked in many places,” said Bauman. “But in reality, there isn’t anything in [the bill] that really shows a commitment to conservation. The priorities are grazing and recreational hunting.”

– Sarah Bauman, Executive Director of the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners