Beauty and the Beast: The president's new monument forces southern Utah to face its tourism future

  • Garfield and Kane counties, Utah

    Diane Sylvain
  • Rock spire in the new Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument

    Jess Johnson
  • Enraged, county commissioners sent bulldozers into the new monument

    Richard Menzies
  • Joe Judd, Kane County Commissioner

    Paul Larmer
  • Scenic Highway 12 through Grand Staircase-Escalante Nat'l Monument

    Richard Menzies
  • Abandoned house sits on rangeland outside Panguitch in Garfield Co.

    Paul Larmer
  • Tour buses in Kanab, Utah

    Richard Menzies
 

KANAB, Utah - Outside the Kane County administration building, a warm autumn sun sets the red cliffs ablaze. Inside, seated in front of an American flag, Kane County's own firebrand, Joe Judd, 67, tells how he came to this small town in southernmost Utah.

"I retired 17 years ago as parks manager for the city of L.A.," he says. "I was responsible for 200 parks, 14 golf courses, and a staff of 2,200 that was 80 percent black."

Judd says the job was rewarding, but ate him alive. "You don't get to be a nice guy when you have your life threatened," he says, shaking his head. "So when I was 50, I said, "I don't need this." " He moved to Kanab.

Instead of hobby ranching, Judd became active in the Mormon Church, serving as a bishop and helping overhaul a soup kitchen for the needy. He also served on the board of the local power company. Then, two years ago he won a seat on the Kane County Commission.

"Now I'm working on zoning ordinances and septic regulations," he says. "I'm trying to pull people here into the 20th century."

This Joe Judd seems far different from the one I talked to two months ago, the day after President Bill Clinton created the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The monument, more than half of which lies in Kane County, killed a proposed coal mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau that supporters say would have brought millions of dollars into Kanab and other towns in the area (HCN, 9/30/96, A Bold Stroke: Clinton takes a 1.7 million acre stand in Utah).

On the phone, Judd cursed the Clinton administration for running roughshod over local people and for destroying the last hope for good wages in his county, which is 95 percent public land and home to just 10,000 people. Soon after, Judd and his fellow commissioners sent county bulldozers into the new monument, some to areas environmentalists want protected as roadless wilderness.

Judd still curses the president and is unapologetic about the "freshened up" roads. But he quickly accepted $100,000 from the Clinton administration to do planning in conjunction with the new monument, and then asked for and received $100,000 that neighboring Garfield County had rejected as "blood money." His county then signed an "assistance agreement" with the Bureau of Land Management that spells out how the two will cooperate during the planning process for the monument.

"It was arrogant as hell for the president to use the law to his advantage as he did," the commissioner says. "But we're not going to sit around with our heads in our hands."

Before visiting southern Utah, I couldn't have guessed that Kane County might embrace the new monument. But Judd and others like him recognize that the monument solidifies two facts of life: Southern Utah's mining, logging and ranching are in decline; and the region is already a public-lands playground for the world.

Even the angry leaders in Garfield County, which is home to the monument's northern half, recognize that the game has evolved from fighting off outsiders to adapting to a tourism boom that could turn their quiet towns into a theme park.

As I drove for hours around the edges of this immense monument and visited its widely scattered communities, I wondered how the land and the people would change over the coming years. Would the anger and resentment fade? Would the Bureau of Land Management be able to run a monument that will attract millions of visitors each year? And would the towns end up looking and feeling like every other strip-developed community near a national treasure?

Kane County: Prosperity's thin veneer

Kanab, pop. 4,500, boasts a golf course on the edge of town that bustles on a weekday in mid-November, and newish hotels, gift stores and restaurants line the clean, wide streets. It seems downright prosperous for a town that has just seen its hopes for a major industrial project - the Andalex coal mine - dashed.

A mild climate and proximity to some of the southwest's finest scenery have made tourism the town's main economic force for years. Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks are all closer than a day's drive, as is Lake Powell. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is just the latest and nearest attraction.

But not long ago, tourism was balanced by a substantial natural-resource-based economy. The scales tipped during the early 1990s, when Kanab lost more than 500 timber and uranium mining jobs. Families that had a primary breadwinner earning $20 to $30 an hour suddenly had to move or change occupations. Those who wanted to stay had to send Dad to work as a trucker or laborer in a distant city and add Mom, grandma and the kids to the work force, most often cleaning hotel rooms and flipping hamburgers for tourists at $5 an hour.

In 1990, 1.5 people per Kane County household were in the work force and the average income was $25,000, according to a recent economic report prepared for the county. Today, 2.6 people work per household and the average income has eroded to $18,000.

"When the high-paying jobs dried up, more people had to work just to meet the bills," says Gil Miller, a Logan, Utah-based economist who drafted Kane County's latest economic development plan. "The only jobs available were in the tourism industry."