Grand Staircase-Escalante Is Declared a National Monument Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Amid conflicting pressures to preserve or exploit a 1.7-million-acre expanse of rugged land in southern Utah, U.S. president Bill Clinton protected its unique natural features by establishing it as a national monument.

Summary of Event

The mountainous American West has long been shaped by its huge tracts of public lands and their abundant resources. In the past, these lands supported a diverse mixture of economic activities: cattle grazing, forest industries, mining, and other extractive processes. There has long been a recognition that these lands are a public trust, to be maintained for the benefit of Americans and for future generations. The rise of the environmental movement brought a nationwide constituency to the preservation of unique natural resources, often coming into conflict with local interests. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Wilderness preservation [kw]Grand Staircase-Escalante Is Declared a National Monument (Sept. 18, 1996) [kw]National Monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante Is Declared a (Sept. 18, 1996) [kw]Monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante Is Declared a National (Sept. 18, 1996) Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Wilderness preservation [g]North America;Sept. 18, 1996: Grand Staircase-Escalante Is Declared a National Monument[09550] [g]United States;Sept. 18, 1996: Grand Staircase-Escalante Is Declared a National Monument[09550] [c]Environmental issues;Sept. 18, 1996: Grand Staircase-Escalante Is Declared a National Monument[09550] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 18, 1996: Grand Staircase-Escalante Is Declared a National Monument[09550] [c]Monuments;Sept. 18, 1996: Grand Staircase-Escalante Is Declared a National Monument[09550] Clinton, Bill [p]Clinton, Bill;environmental policy Babbitt, Bruce Judd, Joe Hatch, Orrin G.

U.S. president Bill Clinton was well aware of the conflict between local and national interests when, on September 18, 1996, on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, he signed a document preserving the Grand Staircase, the Escalante Canyons, and the Kaiparowits Plateau areas by designating the three areas as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, presidents were given the power to establish national monuments without additional enabling legislation. By the end of the twentieth century, presidents had proclaimed more than one hundred national monuments. In many cases, setting the land aside was a first step before an area was granted national park status, but Clinton and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt had a different plan in mind for Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Grosvenor Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

(Bureau of Land Management)

Their plan was to keep the 1.7 million acres of land as a national monument, under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management Bureau of Land Management, U.S. (BLM), but with emphasis on guarding the monument’s natural and archaeological treasures. The BLM had long had a reputation as the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining,” concerned mainly with the interests of these two industries, but there were many people in the agency who took a wider view of its responsibilities. Babbitt, known for his interest in environmental issues, wanted to give the bureau a chance to address such issues in a protected-lands setting. Unlike national parks, which exclude uses other than recreation and preservation, the BLM rules call for managing for multiple uses. Sustained yields and environmental protection are among the BLM’s guiding principles. The presidential proclamation stated that all valid existing leases, rights, and uses would continue to be honored. State-owned lands within the monument area would remain under the state’s authority regarding their use. It seemed that an effort had been made to honor all interests insofar as could reasonably be done.

Those most affected by Clinton’s maneuver—most residents of southern Utah—viewed the issue much differently. There was a widespread belief that Clinton created the monument solely to ensure the votes of environmentalists in the upcoming 1996 presidential election. The lack of prior discussion with local and state officials before a new national monument was created in their midst outraged Utahans. The fact that the signing ceremony was held off-site in Arizona was cited as evidence of underhanded motives. Utah held parcels of school trust lands within the monument, so local politicians claimed that the state’s schoolchildren were being cheated (although an amicable trade of these parcels for outside lands was soon worked out).

Clinton’s proclamation also prevented a potential mining operation, the Andalex coal mine, from being developed on the Kaiparowits Plateau. In a sparsely developed county where high-paying employers had closed down and left, the mining prospect offered hope for a turnaround. Kane County commissioner Joe Judd bitterly criticized the Clinton administration for ruining the last hope for decent wages for the ten thousand people living in his county. Judd, with the other commissioners, then sent county-owned bulldozers to carve rough roads through some areas of the monument’s pristine wilderness in a show of asserting local rights. Even Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah joined the outcry against the designation, calling the new monument “the mother of all land grabs.”

In his 2004 memoir My Life, Clinton himself says that his action was necessary to prevent a large coal mine from going in and altering the nature of the land. In actuality, both sides’ assertions overstate their cases somewhat. The Andalex coal mine had remained only a rumor for some years. Although high-grade coal definitely was present on the Kaiparowits Plateau, its isolation and the cost of transporting it out had made its mining unfeasible. Also, the new national monument is located among spectacular existing parklands. Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, and Lake Powell form a rough triangle around it. It seems likely that in the long run, tourism could bring in at least as many new jobs as would the coal mine.


The proclamation itself portrays Grand Staircase-Escalante as a trove of natural resources and historic human artifacts. The national monument’s geology includes sedimentary rock layers that rise in ascending cliffs and plateaus, showing processes in the earth’s formation. The monument’s biological riches include five life zones, with warm and cold desert areas and a stand of piñon and juniper trees up to fourteen hundred years old. Signs of human habitation go back to the Anasazi and Fremont cultures, and the area was also important in early Mormon colonization. The area was the last place to be explored and mapped in the continental United States, and its landscape is dotted with unique, rugged natural rock formations and twisting canyons.

Previous monument designations had been met with much opposition from local citizens, but as time went on, the anger was largely replaced by pride, and residents adjusted to the new status by creating new economic ventures based on it. Grand Staircase-Escalante seems poised to follow the same pattern. Even Judd, after his bitter resistance to the federal government, accepted $200,000 in federal money for the county to begin planning its new relationship to the monument lands.

The declaration also pointed the way to other Clinton-era endeavors to protect natural resources. During the administration’s first term, Secretary Babbitt had worked tirelessly to limit the impact of mining and grazing on fragile public lands. Meeting angry opposition from both congressmen and their outspoken constituents, he was often frustrated in his efforts. Thanks to the Antiquities Act, public land can be set aside in national monuments while bypassing congressional oversight. After Grand Staircase-Escalante, Clinton went on to establish fifteen other national monuments in the West.

The Republican administration that took office in 2001 had a much different set of priorities. Regarding public lands, it promulgated a policy that favored energy over environmental concerns. However, this policy had some unexpected side effects, including pitting cattle ranchers against mining and oil production companies in fights over land use. As with previous administrations, other policy areas took precedence over that of public lands use, so that the actual impact on resource conservation was somewhat limited.

National monument status is difficult to undo. Many efforts have been made to reverse such declarations in the past, but almost all have failed. Grand Staircase-Escalante continues to protect the grandeur and treasures of its wild, rugged scenery and expanses of wilderness. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Wilderness preservation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harmon, David, et al., eds. The Antiquities Act: A Century of American Archaeology, Historic Preservation, and Nature Conservation. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006. Inclusive survey of the act’s results. The Clinton-era monuments are examined as a study in the exercise of presidential power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keiter, Robert B., et al., eds. Visions of the Grand Staircase-Escalante: Examining Utah’s Newest National Monument. Salt Lake City: Utah Museum of Natural History and Wallace Stegner Center, 1998. Symposium with essays on the physical setting, historical and economic background, legal and political considerations, and planning for the future. A Hopi view speaks of the sacred nature of the land. Useful appendixes list national monuments and include the proclamation’s text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larmer, Paul, ed. Give and Take: How the Clinton Administration’s Public Lands Offensive Transformed the American West. Paonia, Colo.: High Country News Books, 2004. Articles with on-the-spot reportage of stages, people, and issues in the monument’s establishment, plus some parallel controversies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Soden, Dennis L., ed. The Environmental Presidency. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. A look at twentieth century presidents’ handling of environmental concerns. Concludes that all the presidents treated environmental problems cautiously, as “second-tier issues,” but still managed some lasting accomplishments.

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Categories: History