Grand Staircase Escalante and the "Ground Zero Mosque"

With no end in sight, the controversy surrounding the so-called "ground zero mosque" continues to bring out the worst in all of us. As the controversy continues, I'm struck by a parallel between this proposed mosque and another American monument established in 1996.


Almost fifteen years ago, President Bill Clinton designated a large expanse of land in Utah the "Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument." Seen largely as a political ploy to win favor among voting environmentalists, the designation of this national monument immediately halted business development in the area, including a proposed coal mine, and stifled Utah's ability to make use of some of its designated Schools and Institutional Trust Lands to pay for the state's school system (until other SITL lands were designated two years later, thanks in part to the controversy created by the Monument). Creation of the Monument also sparked a conflict between local county officials and the Bureau of Land Management over which authorities have jurisdiction over the dirt roads throughout the Monument. This controversy continues to this day, and is quite emblematic of the frustration felt by many of us in the more rural western United States over BLM practices and fair use of what we see as "our own land."

Make no mistake; these matters are conflicts of law with no easy solutions. The controversy over Grand Staircase Escalante is very much alive in Utah today, with local ranchers and miners still angry about what they see as federal usurpation of important economic resources, and local environmental activists equally as passionate in their support of the Monument. However, we must pause to note that this issue no longer has a place on the national stage.

Our Right to Resolve Local Issues Locally

One root of the issue is the question of why the use of local land that most Americans will never see in their entire lives was elevated to the national stage. At the time, I recall wondering why people from such places as California, Chicago, New York, and Washington had such strong opinions on land about which they knew nothing and in which they had no stake. Fifteen years later, I still don't know. Nevertheless, President Clinton was able to leverage a national appetite for environmental protection toward the resolution of an entirely local land-use issue. Many locals rightly felt that their views were trounced by far-away opinions that were completely distanced from the very real local issues Utahns were living every day. Their question rings as true today as it did in 1996: How much weight does "national opinion" carry with regard to local issues, especially when it comes to land use?

I ask this question now because the fundamental issue is very similar in New York City today. Put to a local vote, it seems virtually guaranteed that the majority of New Yorkers would back the mosque's right to exist. As a result, the controversy today - as it was in Utah fifteen years ago - is being generated and exploited by a national public with no immediate connection to the particular lands in question. Of what relevance, really, are the opinions of Utahns, Arizonans, Californians, Washingtonians, et al in matters of private property in New York City? The obvious answer is, none, of course.

And yet, as a former resident of Utah, I cannot help but feel that some in New York City are now getting their just desserts from weighing in on extra-local private property issues. Herein lies a lesson to be learned by all of us: One day, you are the one determining what some extra-local group should do with their own land; the next day, they may very well be determining how you use yours!

This is the inherent danger of elevating local matters to the national stage. What right does any New Yorker have to object to a national discourse on this mosque, when they were so quick to weigh-in on analogous controversies elsewhere in the country?

Civic Duty and Personal Responsibility

If it is not already clear, let us take a moment to be unequivocal: The use of one's own private property is determined by the owner, subject to local zoning laws. What this means is that if a religious group purchases land fair and square with the intention of constructing a religious building, they are well within their rights to do so. On this point, all sides agree. Let this be the end of the question "Can they do that?"

There is a question of land value at work here. To wit, if what is now known as "Ground Zero" is hallowed ground for our country, then where are all the patriots willing to put their money where their mouths are? Throughout the Amazon rainforest, environmental groups and green-minded individuals have purchased great expanses of land because they, as private individuals, wish to see that land untouched by developers. Rather than coerce the locals through the machinery of government, they simply (and peacefully) purchase what they value so that the land may continue to exist in a way that they prefer. If it is important to some Americans that "Ground Zero" remains free of monuments to Islam, then one may very well ask how much New York City land they have purchased to ensure that it exists as a patriotic monument consistent with their own preferences.

Ironically, this argument was just as easy to apply to environmentalists in 1996, who decided to use the Federal Government as a tool to determine land use, rather than peacefully purchasing land and using it in accordance with their values. There can be no doubt that some of the same voices who criticize mosque opponents today were those who emphatically backed the creation of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

It is easy to see the discrepancy between what people claim to value, and what values they are truly willing to stand behind (e.g.  financially). Those who wish to conserve natural landmarks or patriotic hallowed ground are certainly free to exercise their rights, purchase property, and invest themselves in the values they hold dear. Those who elect not to exercise this right have no place criticizing those who do, no matter to what legal use the land is eventually put.


In an ideal world, we could transcend allegedly "polarizing" issues like this and exist in a harmonious, free society. Rather than rushing to condemn a monument to Islam near the former World Trade Center, concerned Americans could financially contribute to the erection of such a monument with the proviso that the eventual landmark properly reflects donors' values. Those in charge of erecting the landmark, eager to display the open-hearted intentions, would be eager to create such a monument to the peaceful, free, and cooperative society that America has always been.

In the real world, pundits fan the flames of bonfires of vanities. It is tempting to participate in the controversy, lending our own unique take on a multi-faceted issue. When liberals label their opponents bigots and conservatives become enemies of private property, it is important for libertarians to adhere to principle. At issue is more than just freedom to worship and private property, but one of the most attractive and important principles of classical liberalism: civic duty.

Of course all Americans have a right to worship as they please. Of course all Americans have a right to use private property as they see fit. Beyond that cursory glance lie the more important concepts of putting our money where our mouths are if we wish to see land used the way we want it to be, and letting local people sort out their own local issues on the local stage.

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