Rep. Stewart proposes creating Grand Staircase-Escalante National Park

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah congressman Chris Stewart is proposing creating a new national park in the same spot as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The park would be within the boundaries modified by President Trump on Monday. In a ceremony at the Utah State Capitol, the president signed proclamations shrinking both Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. Already, lawsuits have been filed against both.

In an interview with FOX 13 on Tuesday, Rep. Stewart said he believed his national park proposal is a "win-win" for people in the area.

"We think it’s exciting and it’s going to encourage a lot of tourism and a lot more interest in people visiting our great state," he said.

The Second District congressman is proposing taking about 100,000 acres in the Escalante Canyon area (within the modified boundaries) and turning it into a national park. Making the change from a monument to a park would give it more resources, but also make it more accessible for the public.

"You get trails, you get roads, you get restrooms. You get an ability to get in and enjoy the park you won’t get to do with a national monument. Unlike what many people think, monuments don’t get a funding mechanism attached to them and a national park does," Rep. Stewart said.

National parks have recently had trouble with funding and there is a proposal to hike entrance fees to get in. Rep. Stewart said he opposed that, but believed Congress could pay for Utah's sixth national park with existing oil and mineral lease revenues or a "backpack" tax.

The idea of a national park was first hinted at during an interview Rep. Stewart did with FOX 13 on Monday.

Governor Gary Herbert said he supported the idea.

"I am encouraged to see Rep. Stewart taking positive action toward supporting public lands in Utah. A balanced, tailored approach to public lands in Utah should include a new National Park, clear limits and prohibitions against mineral extraction in sensitive areas, and meaningful co-management of sacred lands for our Native American tribes," he said in a statement.

But groups still smarting from the shrinking of monument boundaries had mixed feelings.

"While we are glad to see a member of our congressional delegation finally saying he wants to protect our public lands, this proposal from Rep. Stewart seems to be nothing more than subterfuge following yesterday's tragic decisions," said Chase Thomas with Alliance for a Better Utah. "If these areas deserve national park status, then the entire monument area deserves the same status. Imagine driving into this new national park through newly opened coal mines and other resource development. To do this would be a disservice to the prestige and beauty of our national park system."

Thomas also questioned how a park would be paid for. Suzanne Catlett, the president of the Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce said local voices like theirs need to be included in the conversation.

"As news rolled out today, the Escalante & Boulder Chamber of Commerce, like our friends and neighbors, are just learning the specifics to the potentially illegal move to reduce the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument boundaries, while establishing a new National Park? These mixed messages leave locals and businesses alike, uncertain for their employees, their investments and the local economy," she wrote in an email to FOX 13.

Rep. Stewart said his bill would be introduced on Tuesday with a hearing next week. He hoped it would pass the House in January.