KANAB, Utah (CN) – Millions of years before human existence, much less monument designations, a colossal stairway laid its foundation on the northern rim of the Grand Canyon. Over time, tectonic shift exposed the youngest rock layers of the Colorado Plateau: chocolate, vermillion, white, gray and pink cliffs. The five giant steps, which geologist Clarence Dutton first called the "Grand Staircase" in the 1870s, ascend northward hundreds of miles to Bryce Canyon, creating much of the picturesque topography in Southern Utah.
For many Southern Utahns, the geologic wonder invokes less inspiring memories. In 1996, President Bill Clinton held the declaration for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona instead of Utah, where the entirety of it exists.
“I think that didn’t get off to a good start,” said monument spokesman Larry Crutchfield. When Crutchfield took the job in 2005, many locals made it clear to him they were unhappy with the monument.
“People felt that the establishment of the monument shut them out,” Crutchfield said. “They felt the boundaries were drawn and it was taken away from them. This was land that their families had used for generations, enjoyed and, in their minds, took very good care of. I think they saw it as a taking.”
Renewing the decades-long controversy, President Donald Trump in April ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review all national monuments created after 1996 and larger than 100,000 acres.
In May, Zinke toured the 1.8 million-acre Grand Staircase as part of a four-day visit to Utah, which also included the newly designated and up-for-review Bear Ears National Monument.
"You remember when this monument was formed, the governor of Utah read it in the paper. Remember that,” Zinke told reporters on his last day in the state. “This is the first time we've given locals a say.”
But some activists believe the administration will remove Grand Staircase’s protections and hand it over to special interests – the oil, gas and mining industries that donated generously to key Republican campaigns, including Trump and Zinke.
For Mary Ellen Kustin, director of policy for the Center for American Progress, the connection raises a red flag.
In a column Kustin wrote for the think tank last month, she called the executive order a “thinly veiled land seizure.”
An analysis by Conservation Science Partners recently found Grand Staircase is at 72 percent higher risk of oil and gas development and 37 percent higher risk for mineral resources than “similarly sized Western landscapes,” Kustin wrote.
Although Clinton’s proclamation halted construction of a new coal mine on the Grand Staircase, five existing oil wells operated by Citation Oil and Gas in the Upper Valley Oil Field were allowed to remain active.
Discovered in 1964 by Tenneco, the oil field sits in the Kaiparowits Basin, 10 miles southwest of the town of Escalante.
In 2014, hikers reported to the Bureau of Land Management that a four-mile stretch of Little Valley Wash, 54 miles upstream from Escalante River, was covered in a layer of oil.