The land sprawls across a vast pinyon and juniper forest, climbs pine-topped peaks, and tumbles across a desert's volcanic spires to the sandstone cliffs at the western edge of the Grand Canyon.
This is not the tourist's Grand Canyon, the South Rim that draws nearly 5 million visitors annually. This is 1 million acres of wild and isolated country on the canyon's North Rim, where the nearest pavement can be 60 axle-pounding, tire-puncturing, strictly four-wheel miles away.
Last month, in a bold move that has stirred anew old passions about Washington's control over vast expanses of Western land, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt asked President Clinton to make the land a National Monument.
Today, exactly 92 years after President Theodore Roosevelt used the same powers to create the Grand Canyon National Monument, Mr. Clinton is expected to create a new monument on the park's western edge. It's a big environmental step, one that kicks up tensions over use of the land and states' rights, as well as pointing up differing visions for the West.
"The empty spaces are filling up in the West," Secretary Babbitt said last month as he broke the news of the proposed Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. "We have to imagine what the Western landscape is going to look like in 50 years and try to anticipate, rather than wait for the conflicts to happen."
Clinton's expected move has stirred the ire of a number of ranchers, farmers, and conservative politicians, including Arizona Gov. Jane Hull.
"She doesn't like people in Washington telling Arizona what is going to happen inside Arizona's borders," says press secretary Francie Noyes.
But Ms. Noyes hastens to add that Governor Hull, a Republican, "is a big supporter of open space."
Noyes said the move smacks of political opportunism, with Clinton attempting both to burnish his own legacy and to advance Vice President Al Gore's campaign for the White House. "They are using Arizona for their own political gain," she says.
Arizona's shrinking private land
Critics' sensibilities are heightened by a set of facts many conservatives find disturbing: Only 17 percent of Arizona land is privately owned. The federal government owns 42 percent, the state 13 percent, and Indian Reservations make up 28 percent.
Hull joined Arizona's two Republican senators and five Republican representatives Jan. 7 in signing a letter to Clinton, "requesting that you forego unilateral federal action ... and instead work with us as we involve the people of Arizona in a preservation effort that allows the public a voice in the process."
In a reflection of the controversy's partisan character, the state's sole congressional nonsigner was its sole congressional Democrat, Rep. Ed Pastor of Phoenix.
On the same day that letter went to Clinton, a statewide poll was released showing solid public support - not only for the establishment of the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, but also for a 40,000-acre Agua Fria National Monument in an archaeologically rich area north of Phoenix. (Clinton is also expected to expand Pinnacles National Monument near San Jose, Calif., and create a California Coast National Monument.)
The Behavior Research Center of Phoenix reported that a strongly bipartisan 76 percent of Arizona voters supported the move.
Sierra Club spokesman Rob Smith glowed at the news. "The people of Arizona understand the importance of protecting our remaining wildlands, and they know that the president does, too," says Mr. Smith.
But Darlene Slusher is not impressed by the poll, nor by the pollsters' claim that it reflected statewide sentiment. She suspects that it reflects nothing more than the citified views of Phoenix and Tucson, which make up more than half the state's population.
"City people don't have a clue what happens with the federal government," says Ms. Slusher, a state coordinator for People for the USA, a group that represents the interests of ranchers, hunters, and miners with a stake in federally owned lands. "You say the word 'environmental' to city people and ... it gives them a warm and fuzzy feeling."
Like the state's Republican political leaders, Slusher thinks Congress should have the final say. "That is the proper process, with public consideration and open debate," she says.
Babbitt had called for Congress to take the lead in the process. But he later complained that legislation sponsored by Arizona Rep. Bob Stump would have actually diminished protections from mining and development the land now receives.
The proposed 1 million-plus-acre monument is double the size anticipated a year ago, a fact that further aggravates opponents.
Preservation vs. pragmatism
In any case, Babbitt made sure that that the runup to today's announcement included far more public comment than Clinton received before his 1996 declaration that established the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. That action stirred a fury that is still reverberating and which fuels the resentment about Grand Canyon-Parashant, which is located in a part of Arizona that is politically and geographically more attached to Utah.
Several of the ranchers whose livestock graze the area are from pioneering Mormon families that now live in St. George Utah, the nearest town of any consequence.
The pragmatic, pioneering make-use-of-the-land spirit first clashed with an emerging environmental sensibility in the 1960s, over proposals to dam the Grand Canyon at its eastern and western limits to produce hydroelectric power for the Southwest's growing cities.
Those battles ultimately defeated the dams (although the canyon is now often filled with smog by nearby coal-fired electrical stations) and helped shape the aesthetic that some places must be preserved. As Sierra Club head and passionate dam-opponent David Brower said, "If we can't save the Grand Canyon, what can we save?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society