A remote, unspoilt area desert where the outlaw Butch Cassidy once took refuge and where one of his men wrote his name on the soft, red rock is set to become the first National Monument designated by President George Bush.
The White House is liaising with the state of Utah to set aside the 620,000 acres of desert canyons, native American art and rock formations that make up San Rafael Swell. The governor, Mike Leavitt, is poised to formally ask Mr Bush to designate the land, three hours south of Salt Lake City, under the 1906 Antiquities Act.
There are few people who feel that the area does not deserve some sort of special status, given its cultural and historical legacy as well as its breathtaking landscape. At the same time, Mr Bush vociferously criticised his predecessor Bill Clinton for setting aside millions of acres of land within the 21 National Monuments that he had designated.
"There has been a lot of public dialogue about setting up some sort of designation," said Don Banks, a spokesman for the federal government's Bureau of Land Management in Utah. "There is a general agreement that this is a pretty special place."
The San Rafael Swell is a giant dome of rock created by huge geological upheavals. These days it is a mixture of desert plateau and canyons, some so narrow that one can walk down them and put one's arms out and touch both sides of the rock face.
In addition to being recognised as a place of incredible natural beauty, the area is rich in historical reminders of early hunter-gatherers and the Anasazi Indians who once lived there. Colourful drawings, bold rock carvings and archaeological remains – some of them dating back more than a thousand years – are easily accessible.
The area is also famous for being one of the hiding places used by the outlaw Butch Cassidy. One of the members of his Wild Bunch gang, Matt Warner, wrote his name on the rocks and his graffiti is still visible.
Lawson LeGade, a Utah spokesman for the Sierra Club, one of the oldest and most powerful environmental pressure groups in the US, said the area was unique and deserved to be properly protected.
His concern is that the regulations may not be enough to protect the area from the four-wheel drive vehicles that currently use it. There are also concerns that the area may not be protected from development by mining companies.
"It's fantastic country," said Mr LeGade. "It is part of the Colorado plateau. There are a couple of streams, deep canyons. There are all sorts of rock sculptures and shapes."
The plan to turn the area into a national monument will require a period of consultation with the local community and various interest groups. The Bush administration has indicated its readiness to get involved with the project.
During his 2000 presidential campaign, Mr Bush criticised Mr Clinton for his widescale use of the Antiquities Act to establish 21 National Monuments, mainly in the west and south-west. Mr Bush said that the process failed to ensure adequate consultation with local landowners, business leaders and officials.Reuse content