President Clinton's appearance last week at the Grand Canyon to designate a new national monument in Utah turned out to be a dream photo op. A day after his opponent, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, pressed his anti-crime message in a dusty prison camp behind barbed wire in the Arizona desert, photographers caught Clinton with the purple canyon walls behind him just as sunlight broke through the clouds.
Using the Antiquities Act of 1906, Clinton redesignated 1.7 million acres already under federal control as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Antiquities Act has been used dozens of times, by nearly every president since Theodore Roosevelt, either to create a national monument or expand the boundaries of a previously designated monument. Actions taken under this act require no congressional approval.
Supporters hailed Clinton's move as a necessary last-ditch effort to protect extraordinary and unique geologic and archeological treasures in Utah's red rock country in the southern part of the state from large-scale mining planned nearby. Critics, including Utah's congressional delegation, condemned the action as a land grab and as unwarranted federal intrusion on the state's economic interests. There are elements of truth in each characterization, as well as a large dollop of campaign politicking.
Still, Clinton's action was welcome, given the repeatedly stalled efforts in Congress to formalize or enhance protections for the federally owned red rock canyons. The threat to the integrity of these ancient and special places posed by a planned coal mine was real. Monument designation will not preclude the use of the lands for a variety of purposes, perhaps even including mining, but the new status will require that such activities meet a stricter environmental test. The colorful cliffs, sweeping red arches, fossils and rock paintings found there merit such care.
The Utah designation came as negotiations continue in Washington over a possible land swap to protect ancient redwoods in Northern California's Headwaters Forest, now in private hands. And it follows the president's announcement last month of an agreement with owners of a Canadian mining company under which they will drop their efforts to build a gold mine near Yellowstone National Park in exchange for federal land elsewhere. Clinton's move to protect Utah wilderness, incorporating promises to make up potential revenue losses to the state and the mining company, perhaps with grants of surplus federal land, is certainly the most ambitious of these deals.
Taken together, these extra-legislative deals raise provocative questions about the tradeoffs at stake. How breathtaking must a canyon or a valley be to become a national monument or a national park? Who should decide? How should we balance local residents' economic losses against the benefits to all Americans, now and in future generations? No handy statistical test exists to do that.
Clinton's monument designation last week will understandably resonate most negatively with those who fear the president has compromised jobs and state revenues for schools expected to come from lands now within the new monument's boundary. The president must make good on promises to mitigate those losses. Yet, unilateral though his action was, most Americans will cheer this monument.