FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A coalition of environmentalists wants to create a national monument near the Grand Canyon, but federal officials and a ranchers group say the land already is adequately protected from things like overgrazing and mining.
The environmentalists are looking to President Barack Obama to declare a 1.7 million-acre area, mostly north of the Grand Canyon, as Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument. The sparsely populated area just south of the Utah border is a mix of towering cliffs and canyons, grasslands, forest and desert that is popular with hunters, ranchers, hikers and other recreationists.
"The benefits economically and certainly ecologically would be positive, probably substantially so," said Kim Crumbo of the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. "The negative downside is kind of hard to imagine unless you're ideologically opposed to the federal government protecting areas."
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service oversee much of the land in the proposal, which includes wilderness areas, a rock art site and wildlife corridors. The land also includes the more than 1 million acres on which the Interior Department has banned new mining claims for 20 years.
The environmental groups say a national monument would extend that protection permanently and help preserve large-diameter ponderosa pine trees, archaeological sites, wildlife habitat and springs, and promote the voluntary retirement of grazing permits
Patrick Bray, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattlemen's Association, sees the proposal as a way to lock up the land unnecessarily. Ranchers have been grazing cattle on the Arizona Strip for generations, sustaining one of the few industries left there, he said.
"It's a gorgeous part of the state, a gem for sure," Bray said. "There's better ways without using the heavy hand of government to make that a well-used landscape that benefits the people in those local communities."
The proposal is unlikely to find support among some lawmakers in Arizona and Utah, who believe federal regulations hurt energy development, recreation and grazing. Legislation that failed in Arizona this year but passed in Utah sought to have the federal government hand over control of public territory to the states with the idea that local leaders could manage it better.
Crumbo acknowledges that the environmental groups are hurting for heroes on the proposal but said they want to make a pitch to Obama before his terms ends.
Obama has authority under the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments without the approval of other local leaders, federal agencies or Congress. Presidents dating to Theodore Roosevelt have used the 1906 law to protect sites deemed to have natural, historical or scientific significance, including the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
The proposed Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument would lie between two other national monuments north of the Grand Canyon — Grand Canyon-Parashant to the west and Vermillion Cliffs to the east. It also would include some Forest Service land south of the canyon.
"This would be an opportune time for him (Obama) to make a fairly important legacy proclamation," Crumbo said.
But the level of protection would depend on the language a president includes in the designation and what federal agency manages the monument, said Joe Fellar, who teaches public land law at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. The National Park Service tends to have more strict regulations on national monuments than does the Forest Service or the BLM, he said.
"It's perfectly possible for it to be neither protected nor locked up and still be called a national monument," he said.
BLM spokeswoman Rachel Tueller declined to comment specifically on the proposal but said the agency's grazing permit process helps ensure that the land isn't overgrazed. The BLM issues 10-year renewable permits on 52 allotments in the proposed monument that range from hundreds to tens of thousands of acres on the Arizona Strip.
The main objective for environmentalists on the Kaibab National Forest is eliminating the harvest of large-diameter trees, the environmentalists said. A project to thin the forest and conduct prescribed burns that first was proposed in 1998 has been hung up over the size of trees that could be cut.
The environmental groups, which also include the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Wilderness Society, contend a national monument would better protect ancient and large-diameter trees. Patrick Lair, a spokesman for the forest, said some openings need to be created even in stands of old trees to make the forest more suitable for wildlife and clear out heavy fuels.
"It's not good to have a real high density of trees, even if they are large trees, because the interlocking crowns create a potential for fire danger," he said.