'Fury' in 'Deeply Republican' Utah Over Designating National Monuments in Western U.S.

On Saturday, Denver-based reporter Kirk Johnson discovered more "angry" conservatives out West, this time fighting the Obama administration over designating national monuments: "In the West, 'Monument' Is a Fighting Word."

(Johnson is most noted for his chronic hypersensitivity toward signs of conservative slippage in Western red states like Utah.)

In much of the nation, "monument" is an innocuous word, conjuring up images of historical figures cast in bronze or road-side plaques few stop to read.

In the West, though, it's a fighting word, bound up for years with simmering resentments against the federal government and presidential powers. The feeling dates to the days when, with the stroke of a pen, Theodore Roosevelt declared lands he wished to protect as national monuments under the American Antiquities Act.

A new monument fight erupted this week when Representative Rob Bishop, Republican of Utah, said he had uncovered a "secret" Interior Department memorandum suggesting that the federal government was considering national monument designation for 14 huge blocks of land in nine states from Montana to New Mexico.

A spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior, Kendra Barkoff, said the list was not secret at all, but simply a "very, very, very preliminary," internal working document resulting from a brainstorming session that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a Democrat and former senator from Colorado, had requested about the lands in the West.

"No decisions have been made about which areas, if any, might merit more serious review and consideration," Ms. Barkoff said in a statement.

But the word "secret," especially when applied to the possible doings of far-away federal bureaucrats, is right up there with "monument" in its ability to unleash vitriol among Western conservatives. In 1996, President Bill Clinton created the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah with a surprise announcement that still resonates across the region as a symbol of government powers, or what critics call the abuse of those powers.

Johnson at least let the locals have their say against the federal encroachment, but kept digging into the angry ideology of the "deeply Republican part of the country" that is his beat.

A spokesman for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a conservation group, said the appearance of secrecy in monument talks had melded with ideological opposition to the Obama administration - widespread in a deeply Republican part of the country.

"I don't think it's as much about the specifics of the land issues as it is pure ideological concerns," said the group's executive director, Scott Groene. "There's already been a great fury going on in this state, and it's hard to imagine that this really changes any of that."

The fury is nothing new. In 1969, for example, the town of Boulder, Utah, passed a resolution changing its name to Johnson's Folly, and predicted the town's demise after President Lyndon B. Johnson added thousands of acres to Arches and Capitol Reef National Monuments, which were both later designated national parks by Congress.

Did liberals never react with "fury" to Bush administration initiatives?