On Wednesday Senate floor time was dominated by discussion over HCR 12 – Concurrent Resolution Urging Federal Legislation to Reduce or Modify the Boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument which is designed to ask Utah’s federal delegation to reduce the size of that monument. Originating from Representative Mike Noel (Republican – Kanab) the resolution was carried by Senator Ralph Okerlund (Republican – Monroe) in the Senate.
“Nearly 20 years ago, in September of 1996, by Presidential Proclamation Number 6920, without any input or support from Garfield or Kane Counties or their citizens, or their public officials, or any public participation in any process, or with the State of Utah, the president designated [the Grandstaircase-Escalante National Monument].” Okerlund said, while also explaining to the body that the five National Parks in Utah are nearly one million square miles smaller than Grand Staircase Monument and that, as such, has had a dramatic effect on the local economy by using an interesting metric. “[The monument] was created without any consultation with anyone in Utah, it didn’t take into consideration local economies, customs, culture, heritage, and as a result is that what has happened in that area is that Escalante High School…has reduced in population to 151 to, 20 years later, 2016, 67 students…that is the effect this monument has had on local populations.”
Okerlund’s hope was that the boundary adjustments would “maximize and optimize multiple-use” that balances the needs of protecting antiquities, the outdoors, the needs of grazing, and other economic interests. He hopes to achieve this by looking to reduce the area “to a minimum area necessary to protect the antiquities identified in the presidential proclamation.”
Okerlund would end his opening salvo by simply stating that “The public doesn’t support [the monument], the locals don’t support it. And they will not until they finally get to a point where we have some ability for them to participate in this process.”
Democrats, however, would question the need for the resolution. Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City), somewhat exhaustedly, told the body that “I stand, once again, to plead with the State of Utah and our leadership to do exactly what [Okerlund] says – and that is going and sitting down with a sincere heart with the federal government and roll up our sleeves and give up the political advantage that says ‘our state is controlled by so many people’ and lets solve this comprehensively. Let’s take the SITLA lands, let’s take the payment in lieu of taxes, let’s get an agreement the best we can.”
SITLA, or the School Institutional Trust Lands Administration, sells state land to private bidders and generates approximately $50 million for schools, roughly 1 percent of total state funds towards education; payment in lieu of taxes, or PILT, is a government program wherein the federal government is supposed to reimburse states for the expected tax dollars lost due to federal lands not being available for sale.
“I just feel the state has not been sincere. People talk about ‘well this will be money for the school children’ that’s not a sincere argument – if you look at the 700 page document that the state commissioned of our own schools, it came up barely breaking even, maybe a $100 million profit to the state…but that presupposed, I might add, oil at about $95 a barrel…the idea that there is a big bonanza out there for our school kids is just not true,” Dabakis concluded.
Meanwhile Senator Luz Escamilla wondered what the concern actually was about the monument by informing the body that “a 2011 Headwaters economic study found that the region surrounding the monument of Gand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, that’s Kane and Garfield Counties, saw increases in population, jobs, rural per capita income, and other measures following the designation of 1996. So from 1996 to 2008, the population grew by 8 percent, jobs grew by 38 percent, real personal income grew by 40 percent, and the real per capita income grew by 20 percent.” She would add that 2014 shows that this growth continued despite the recession and will call the resolution an “overgrown fear.” Somewhat dejected, she simply stated that “I know that this is a message resolution…I don’t know how this is helping the state of Utah, truly…if want to work with someone, it isn’t by throwing it in their faces, and I think we have done enough for the session when it comes to these issues.”
Finally Senator Gene Davis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) turned to the recent news regarding the Outdoor Retailers threating to pull their biannual convention as part of the backlash that occurred due to the recently passed Bears Ears resolution – HCR 11 – Concurrent Resolution Urging the President to Rescind the Bears Ears National Monument Designation – and wondered if lawmakers are considering the full economic impact of this resolution. Okerlund countered by saying that “outdoor recreation is extremely important to the State of Utah, and we are extremely fortunate to have the convention here – we want to continue to work with that community to make sure they understand that they are welcome here. A big part of this 1.9 million acres should be is to allow the recreation that these folks are interested in and want to develop.”
Davis wrapped up his comments by stating that his “concern is that this is an outdoor recreation area, and as I take a look at the economic development created not only at the Outdoor Retailors meeting here for the last 20 years, but it has also been very, very important for the growth in those areas in the Escalante region.”
Senator Jacob Anderegg (Republican – Lehi) used his time to recount a conversation he had with Democratic New York Senator Chuck Schumer while working on Senator Mike Lee’s staff where Schumer allegedly asked Anderegg “when are you guys going to get it? Utah is the East-Coasters playground, we are not going to give you the land back.” Anderegg would then rhetorically ask how we expect to have a rational discussion with people who view the land as theirs.
Finally, Senator David Hinkins (Republican – Orangeville) used the debate as an opportunity to attack those who enjoy the outdoors in general and the Outdoor Retailers Expo in particular by stating “As far as the retailers – I know they take a lot of credit for the hotels being filled up for that week that they are here, but, you know, the ski industry already has the hotels 80 percent full,” adding “They are going to take their convention and go somewhere else, it sounds like, if we don’t pander to them, but you know, where do they manufacture all these products they talk about? I don’t know where these manufacturing plants are here in the state…I don’t believe they are manufactured in Utah…And so the idle threat of that, to me, is non-existent. I think the jobs that we are losing that are good paying jobs, and not just catering to backpackers that don’t stay in the hotels anyway but stay in their pup tents, I just think the impact isn’t as great as it is played out to be.”
Okerlund would end the debate by saying that he would be okay with the area remained a monument, but only if people in the region were part of the process to make that designation. He would ultimately say that this is a nonpartisan issue, which would be prophetic as Senator Davis crossed the voting divide and voted in favor of the measure. The resolution would pass 25-4 and is now off to the governor for his presumed signature.