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Utah Officials Oppose U.S. Plan for Land

Environment: Clinton is poised to create huge national monument. Foes fear economic damage.

September 18, 1996|FRANK CLIFFORD and PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Poised to create a vast national monument amid the canyons and plateaus of southern Utah, President Clinton faced last-minute opposition Tuesday from the state's officials, who warn that it will lock up one of the nation's most valuable coal reserves.

Administration officials have been hinting broadly for several days that Clinton would announce the creation of a monument larger than the state of Delaware during a visit today to the Grand Canyon. Despite attempts by Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and others to change the president's mind, a senior White House official said Tuesday that he fully expected Clinton to proceed.

However, the White House declined to say how the 1.8 million acres would be managed and what restrictions would be placed on commercial and industrial activity. Most of the land in question now belongs to the federal government and is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Leavitt said Tuesday after meeting with White House chief of staff Leon Panetta that he tried to persuade the president to establish a joint state and federal management team to administer the land to ensure that both economic and environmental needs are served.

Of greatest concern to Utah, Leavitt said, are 200,000 acres of state trust lands that represent $2 billion in untapped revenues for the benefit of the public schools--providing the land is not isolated within a federally designated wilderness or monument.

Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett condemned the monument designation as "the height of arrogance."

"The president is attempting to establish the largest national monument in the lower 48 states by administrative fiat without any consultation with the Congress or the people directly affected," said a spokeswoman for Bennett.

A place of extravagant beauty, abundant fossils and archeological remains, the 1.8 million acres under consideration have been exciting the imagination of explorers, scientists and tourists for more than a century.

The land stretches from the labyrinthine canyons of the Escalante River, long a paradise for hikers and naturalists, across the coal-rich Kaiparowits Plateau to a region known as the Grand Staircase, 100 miles of vermilion cliffs and terraces that rise toward two existing national parks--Bryce Canyon and Zion.

Among environmentalists, who are being seriously courted by the administration this election year, the red rock canyon country of southern Utah is no less worthy of protection than Yellowstone or the giant redwoods of Northern California.

Clinton has acted recently to end the threat of a huge gold mine next to Yellowstone National Park and to postpone logging of California's last unprotected ancient redwoods in the Headwaters Forest. But creating a national monument in southern Utah could put significant obstacles in the path of local efforts to mine for coal, explore for gas and oil, build roads and graze cattle.

In particular, a national monument could be a major setback to a proposed coal mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau that could be a major boon to surrounding rural counties and to the distant Port of Los Angeles and a number of America's Pacific Rim trading partners, who hope to export high-quality, low-polluting Kaiparowits coal through the port.

Nearly 200 miles from the nearest rail line or big city, the Kaiparowits reserves have been too remote to mine profitably. But the construction of a giant coal export facility in Los Angeles has made the venture look much more attractive.

"It would be wrong to think of the monument as a proposal to stop the mine," said a White House official. "We would be doing it to protect a variety of natural and archeological treasures."

At the same time, said the official, monument status could make it harder for any mining operation to build the estimated 22 miles of roads necessary to ship the coal out. Some in the administration hope that the mine's lease holder would eventually be willing to trade for federal coal leases elsewhere, the official said.

The plateau is believed to hold 5 billion to 7 billion tons of the cleanest-burning, highest-energy coal to be found anywhere in the country.

"Here we are sending 5,000 men and women to the borders of Iraq," said Leavitt, "on one hand risking human lives to protect energy policy and at the same time unilaterally locking up one of the largest single environmentally safe coal reserves in America."

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