Judge Upholds Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, April 20, 2004 (ENS) - President Bill Clinton’s 1996 proclamation creating a 1.7 million acre national monument in Utah is constitutional and legal and may not be set aside, a Utah federal district court ruled Monday. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah has been the subject of numerous lawsuits, and this decision is likely to be appealed.

Judge Dee Benson delighted conservationists and disappointed the Utah Association of Counties and the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a nonprofit, legal center dedicated to individual liberty, and the right to own and use property which challenged President Clinton's 1996 designation.

The suit was brought against President George W. Bush in his official capacity as President, although the case challenged President Clinton's use of the Antiquities Act.

Mountain States Legal Foundation argued that the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument violates the U.S. Constitution, which assigns power over all federal lands to Congress, as well as a host of federal laws.


Calf Creek in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Trust)
Judge Benson ruled that the court lacks authority to determine if President Clinton abused his authority under the Antiquities Act and that the claims of the foundation on the violation of federal laws “are without factual or legal support.”

“President Bush and Vice President [Dick] Cheney, who campaigned across the West against Clinton’s Utah monument decree, sent federal lawyers into court to vigorously defend Clinton’s actions; they must be thrilled with this victory,” said William Perry Pendley of Mountain States Legal Foundation.

“On behalf of Kane and Garfield Counties, which have suffered economically as a result of Clinton’s order, we are disappointed. Of course, we will appeal,” Perry said.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) is Utah’s largest conservation organization, said it was "thrilled" with the decision in this "tough political climate."

President Clinton's use of the Antiquities Act to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996 was the first use of the law in two decades. Judge Benson ruled that although the original intention of the act was to protect small, interesting ruins, the act had "clearly expanded" beyond that.

While there is nothing in the act that specifically authorizes the creation of national monuments for scenic purposes or for general conservation purposes, several Presidents have used the act to withdraw large land areas for these purposes, the judge wrote. President Theodore Roosevelt was the first President to do so, establishing a precedent, and used the act for this purpose 18 times, Judge Benson pointed out.

Near the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument in Utah there are six other monuments that were created in the same manner - Cedar Breaks, Hovenweep, Timpanagos Cave, Dinosaur, Rainbow Bridge and Natural Bridges. In neighboring Colorado and Arizona, there are other monuments created using the Antiquities Act, the judge wrote.

While most monument designations under the Antiquities Act have not been controversial, there have been a few legal challenges, but all have failed, Judge Benson wrote.

The court has only the jurisdiction to decide that in fact President Clinton used the Antiquities Act to designate the monument and that he was within his rights to do so. The court has no jurisdiction to decide whether President Clinton violated the Constitution or any other law, the judge ruled.

On claims the plaintiff attempted to make based on federal laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, they are "of no merit," Judge Benson ruled.

The fact that President Clinton's decision to announce the monument occurred eight weeks before the 1996 federal election angered Westerners, the Mountain States Legal Foundation claims.

"Clinton admitted that he did so to kill an underground coal mine that would have employed 1,000 Utahans and would have produced a $20 million annual revenue stream for the local economy. Westerners were furious over Clinton’s action undertaken, according to official White House documents, to cause environmental groups to aid Clinton’s 1996 re-election," the foundation wrote.


Aerial photograph of the Escalante River canyon and drainage (Photo courtesy BLM)
The monument covers three separate regions - the Grand Staircase, the Kaiparowits Plateau, and the Escalante Canyons. Each of these regions has a different topography, and is recognized for its own unique attributes.

The Grand Staircase region is a series of multi-colored cliffs which begin at the rim of the Grand Canyon, and ascend nearly 5,500 feet across the southwestern side of the monument, to end with a final stair of pink cliffs in Bryce Canyon National Park.

These stairs consist of "risers" of resistant and non-resistant rock formations up to 2,000 feet high, and "treads" which are valleys or plateaus up to 15 miles wide.

The stairs include the Chocolate Cliffs, Vermilion Cliffs, White Cliffs, Gray Cliffs, and Pink Cliffs, all large expanses of exposed, virtually undeformed rock strata which provide a continuous stratigraphic record from Grand Canyon (Precambrian) to Bryce Canyon (Tertiary).

The Kaiparowits Plateau is a remote, wedge shaped region of vast mesa tops and sheer cliffs. Giant sections of petrified trees are also found on the Plateau, and an excellent, nearly continuous fossil record of late Cretaceous terrestrial life.

Because of its remoteness and isolation, many plant species have evolved there virtually unaltered by human interference. The region was also a contact point for Fremont and Anasazi cultures, and numerous prehistoric artifacts and structures there provide archeologists with the opportunity to learn more about the interactions between these two groups.

The Canyons of the Escalante consist of a maze of twisting, meandering, and interconnecting canyons of Jurassic sandstone that have been slowly carved over the centuries by the Escalante River and its tributaries. A favorite place for hikers and backpackers, these riparian ways serve as migration corridors for neotropical birds, and are habitat for many relict plant communities which have evolved in these canyons. Here also are artifacts and remains from early American Indian cultures and nineteenth century pioneers.