Monument in the Red Rock

BILL CLINTON HAS ACTED LIKE A lot of Republicans lately, and last week he got to play Theodore Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt, back in 1908, who used the (then) two-year-old Antiquities Act to designate the Grand Canyon a national monument. In cowboy boots and khaki, standing on the canyon's south rim, Clinton invoked the same law to declare 1.7 million acres of southern Utah's red-rock wilderness, much of it already federally owned, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The designation does not require congressional approval. Lucky thing. The entire Utah delegation is furious. But Clinton wasn't trying to make friends in the only state where he pulled fewer votes in 1992 than either George Bush or Ross Perot. His campaign team wants to energize the environmentalists who are crucial to winning California, Oregon, Colorado and even Arizona, and so far the reviews are raves. ""This is a gutsy move,'' says Mike Matz, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. ""We were very surprised.''

Not as surprised as Utah politicians. In Washington, the entire delegation joined in a press conference where Sen. Orrin Hatch denounced the move as ""the mother of all land grabs.'' The tiny town of Kanab in Kane County shut down for an hour in protest, released 50 black balloons and flew the flag at half-mast, while vendors hawked ""Clinton burgers: 100 percent chicken.'' Kane Commissioner Joe Judd fumed, ""The most powerful politician in the world just kicked me in the teeth.'' Judd figures he can kiss goodbye the 900 jobs and millions in tax revenue promised by a coal mine that Andalex Resources Corp., a Dutch company, had planned for the sandstone bluffs and wind-carved buttes of the Kaiparowits Plateau.

The Utah Republicans themselves helped trigger Clinton's move. When the GOP took control of Congress in 1995, Utah's legislators tried to push through a bill designating 1.9 million acres of the state's red-rock country as wilderness. Enviros saw two huge problems. First, the bill would have left nearly 4 million acres open to mining, road building, logging and other development. Worse, says Gregory Wetstone, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Utah bill declared that the remaining red-rock lands could never, ever, be named wilderness areas. That prospect energized conservationists nationwide. They managed to kill the GOP bill this spring, and persuaded Clinton to intervene. Although Clinton's action does not protect all 5.7 million acres that conservation groups had pushed for, it leaves open the possibility that the rest will one day be put off-limits to development.

The monument designation does not rule out mining. As Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt conceded, ""This proclamation does not dictate a conclusion about the future of that [coal] mine.'' (Last month Clinton did put a stop to a proposed gold mine just outside Yellowstone National Park.) But the environmental safeguards required of a mine in a national monument are so stringent that Andalex has vowed to fight the monument designation. The other company holding a coal lease in the area has already ""traded out'': Pacific Corp. agreed to swap its holdings for cash and land elsewhere in Utah. Andalex, despite its threat, may follow, out of enlightened self-interest. An independent economic analysis recently concluded that the coal deposits are so far from transportation hubs that the mine would be a financial bust. And if the past is any guide, Escalante could receive even greater protection in the future. Five national parks on the Colorado Plateau--Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches and Grand Canyon--got their start as controversial national monuments.