President Bush is moving to establish his first national monument, which would protect Utah's San Rafael Swell, a dramatic sweep of desert canyons where environmentalists have long sought stronger federal protection.
Utah's Republican governor, Mike Leavitt, announced in a speech Monday evening that state and local officials will request creation of San Rafael National Monument on a 620,000-acre expanse that was once a hiding place for Butch Cassidy.
A Bush administration spokesman said he could not confirm that a White House designation is forthcoming, but he praised the fact that the San Rafael Swell request came not from Washington bureaucrats, but from people in Utah.
The proposal received a mixed reaction from leading environmentalists. They said they were surprised by the move from an administration often at odds with them over the protection of wilderness areas. But they were concerned that the White House might use the monument designation to accommodate widespread off-road vehicle use and mineral development.
"I think it will be a real litmus test for the Bush administration," said Heidi McIntosh, conservation director of the Salt Lake City-based Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "If the administration really uses this as an opportunity to do something positive and visionary, we will support them on it," she said.
At the Sierra Club, Executive Director Carl Pope claimed the Utah congressional delegation has made several efforts to pass what he called "bogus wilderness protection" to allow activities that would not be allowed in other wilderness areas.
"This may be the real thing. But given our previous history of bait-and-switch with the San Rafael Swell, the devil is in the details," Pope said.
The administration has been sharply critical of monument designations by former President Clinton, saying that many were done without consulting local residents, some of whom did not welcome the restrictions that monuments can bring.
The San Rafael Swell proposal is different, one spokesman said.
"It's coming from the bottom up, instead of the top down," said Mark Pfeifle, spokesman for Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton. "The monuments created under this administration will be created the right way, with local community members brought into the process at the beginning."
When asked if such praise for the proposal signified that Bush favored a monument, Pfeifle said simply, "You certainly could read that into it." Leavitt also hinted he expected a positive response.
Members of Utah's congressional delegation complained bitterly in 1996 when Clinton proclaimed 1.7 million acres of canyon land in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
That monument and others are governed much in the manner of national parks, with limits placed on commercial activities, such as mining and cattle grazing, and on off-road motorized recreation.
An advocate for off-road vehicle use of public lands, Don Amador said he was encouraged by the proposed approach to the San Rafael monument.
"We certainly support decisions made at the local level," said Amador, western representative for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a national group lobbying for multiple recreational use of public lands.
"Our members would look forward to working with Gov. Leavitt and the administration to craft a monument that has local input and not something that is crafted back in Washington, D.C.," he said.
Monuments can allow for designated trail routes for off-road vehicles, he said. "You'd probably see access limited to designated trails. . . . It sounds like that's an effort that's got good local support, and that's something we've always supported, so we'll watch and see where it goes."
The San Rafael Swell today is a popular site for off-road vehicles, which in turn has angered environmentalists who want the canyon-climbing ATVs controlled or even banned. Pfeifle said that both off-road enthusiasts and environmentalists would be part of any monument planning.
The San Rafael Swell includes sandstone arches, archeological sites, wild horses and desert bighorn sheep.
Located about 150 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, it is expected to draw visitors during the upcoming Winter Olympics. In fact, local environmental groups have been showering the media with packets featuring the area and other Utah wilderness havens in hopes of prompting stories about their efforts to protect such lands from off-troad vehicles, oil exploration and development.
Leavitt approached the Bush administration with the idea, according to Pfeifle, the Interior Department spokesman.
Pfeifle said that if Bush does declare the land a monument, a management plan would be assembled over 18 months to three years, including many meetings with local residents.
On Monday, Leavitt announced that in contrast to the Grand Staircase-Escalante proposal, the San Rafael proposal grew out of seven years of intense talks among interested parties.
"This is no stealth proposal," Leavitt said. "We will ask President Bush to allow sufficient notice and additional discussion before acting.
"And you want my guess? The president will like this."
Leavitt described the San Rafael Swell as "these 620,000 acres of canyons, pinnacles and rock formations . . . placed in our backyard by a generous providence, and we will now prove ourselves worthy of that gift."
An aide to Utah's senior senator, Republican Orrin G. Hatch, said that the senator supports the designation of a monument because the local people want more protection for the area, which has become very popular in recent years and is being misused by off-road vehicles.
The aide said Hatch has been trying for years to get additional protections for the San Rafael Swell passed by Congress, but his efforts were bogged down in politics over other wilderness issues.
Schoch reported from Los Angeles and Shogren from Washington.