Former Republican Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt told House lawmakers that the Clinton administration abused its power by designating a 1.8 million acre national monument in the southern portion of his home state.
Leavitt’s testimony details how the Clinton administration’s evasiveness in the days up to creating of the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument in 1996.
The monument designation “was done in stealth, under wraps and on the fly,” Leavitt said, noting he only found out about the monument designation in The Washington Post about 11 days before it occurred.
“There was a deliberate effort to conceal and keep monument planning out of public view,” Leavitt will tell the House Committee on Natural Resources, according to prepared testimony.
“Secrecy was so vital a concern to the endeavor that the administration was denying a decision had been made, even as bleachers were going up for the presidential announcement at the Grand Canyon,” Leavitt said, adding, ” the way Grand Staircase came forward was an abuse of power, process and protocol so egregious that it is offensive to the concept of democracy itself.”
Leavitt is one of several witnesses invited to testify on how past administration’s abused the Antiquities Act to lock up millions of acres in southern Utah. House Republicans have put forward a bill to turn the Grand Staircase into a national park and ensure local interests are protected.
Lawmakers are focusing on the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears monuments, both of which President Donald Trump signed an executive order on to shrink.
Trump’s actions angered Democrats, environmentalists and tribal officials, but Utah Republicans and local officials cheered the move, saying it would restore access to the land and protect property rights.
But the move has also sparked a larger look at the Antiquities Act of 1906. Western Republicans have chafed at past president’s increasing use of the act to impose stricter controls over large tracts of land.
“The Antiquities Act was originally intended to provide emergency power to protect Indian artifacts and objects of historic and scientific importance, not to create sweeping monuments of a million-plus acres, with minimal regard for the relationship between the land and the local economy,” Leavitt said.
“In Southern Utah, both Grand Staircase and Bears Ears individually are larger in size than our five national parks combined,” Leavitt said.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, have sued, arguing Trump has no authority to eliminate or reduce the size of a national monument. They’re joined by a coalition of five Native American tribes that supported the Bears Ears monument designation.
“When we look at the underlying act, it does give the president broad discretion,” Ute Indian Tribe attorney Jeffrey Rasmussen said. “The legal issue that we are going to be getting to is can the president or can a new president go back and redo that use of discretion.”
Leavitt had been governor for three years when Clinton designated the Grand Staircase in 1996. Leavitt said he only heard of the monument designation in the news, and the Clinton administration was evasive on giving answers.
Leavitt finally got a meeting at the White House after days of phone calls, and met with President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff Leon Panetta the day before the monument was designated.
“Mr. Panetta and President Clinton both indicated at the time that they did not like how it all unfolded, but felt that the momentum of the event had swept things irrevocably forward,” Leavitt said.
“I believe with considerable certainty that the monument originated at the Department of Interior, working closely with national environmental groups,” Leavitt said. “The proposal was given to CEQ to manage. I’m confident that Mr. Panetta and the President liked the idea of creating a national monument, but I suspect the presidential campaign and environmental organizations clearly took over the process.”
Leavitt said an email surfaced a year after the designation from a White House officials that said past presidents “have not used their monument designation authority in this way in the past – only for large dramatic parcels that are threatened.”
“The bad guys – her words – will have the chance to suggest that this administration could use this authority all the time all over the country and start to argue that the discretion is too broad,” the CEQ official wrote.
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