Las Vegas mulch

The next day, sitting in a cramped trailer office at the Utah Forest Products mill south of Escalante, manager Stephen Steed asks a question.

"How many people stayed at your hotel last night?"

Just me and one other, I say.

"Yeah, that was probably our state forester who's down from Salt Lake for the week," Steed says. "That means a traveling newspaperman and the state forestry guy took care of the tourist industry in Escalante last night. Try feeding that to your family."

Though Steed doesn't have much use for tourism, he's not mired in the past. The fourth-generation logger and his father ran the mill until it shut down here in 1993, and he learned from that experience. The new mill is financed by outside money and is a different animal. It is smaller, employing just 65, and it is more efficient, producing a variety of goods, including milled lumber and chips.

"There's no waste," says Steed. "We even ship the chips to Las Vegas. They mix them with fertilizer to make a landscaping mulch for all those subdivisions in the desert."

This value-added stuff is what Garfield County commissioners have started to look for. They recently hired a Salt Lake City-based consulting firm to help its ranchers market "riparian-free, monument beef," says consultant David Nimkin of Confluence Associates. Riparian-free, he says, means cows stay out of streams.

He also sees local logging companies producing finished products, such as furniture or floor boards. "There's a big market for softwood floors in the Salt Lake City area, but most of the wood comes from the southeastern United States," says Nimkin. "Why couldn't Utah fir and pine fill that need?"

The concept extends to the monument: Keep its 1.7 million acres rugged and relatively roadless, and instead of fast-food jobs you'd need guides and outfitters to lead dudes into the trackless interior, says the planning consultant. The guides could even educate visitors about the history and culture of the area.

"These towns are never going to be gateway communities like Springdale (outside Zion National Park)," says Nimkin. "But they could market the monument as one of the last great, wild places, a place where you need a local guide to show you the deep dark secrets."

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt is paying attention. He has promised to help Garfield and Kane counties plan for the changes that lie ahead. Leavitt's planning director, Brad Barber, says the state is setting up an economic development team that will help these communities find money for new business ventures and the roads and services they need.

"Where do we put the lodges? Do we have building codes? What do we want our town to look like? Do we want any old, ugly Motel 6 in town?," asks Barber. "These are the questions these communities need to face now."

The pioneer spirit

Before leaving Escalante, I stop at the ranch of Garfield County commissioner Louise Liston. The scrappy and articulate Escalante native is known as a staunch defender of rural values. Yet she and her fifth-generation cattle-rancher husband, Robert, have adapted to a new West: They've given up on cattle and now raise ostriches.

The Listons trace their roots back to the Mormon pioneers who found a way across the tortuous terrain from Escalante southeast across the Colorado River. You can still travel The Hole-in-the-Rock route, which lies in the new monument, on a teeth-rattling dirt road.

"When you know of the sacrifices our pioneer ancestors made, you feel that it demands the same type of sacrifice from you," Liston says.

She says her son-in-law next door worked at the old sawmill which closed in 1993. He has yet to find a permanent job and that's been tough on Liston's daughter and their six children.

"My daughter started working at the Dairy Queen in Panguitch," she says. "Now she's driving 50 miles to work at Ruby's Inn. They sacrifice to stay in the valley. You don't do that unless you love it."

More tourism in Escalante could mean that Liston's daughter could work closer to home, but that doesn't sit well, either. "It worries me that we'll turn into Moab and have resorts," says Liston. "We'd love to keep our farming community and our cowboy flavor. I believe that's what draws the tourists."

Louise Liston is a study in contradictions: As a county leader, she has refused to take monument planning money from a despised federal government, yet she recently asked Congress for $2.9 million to help the county cope with the monument. She would like the prosperity tourism could bring, but despises tourism because she fears it will change her quiet community forever.

The contrast between Liston and Kane County Commissioner Joe Judd appears stark. Faced with rapid change, one holds to the past while the other reaches for the future. But as I head out Liston's door, she says, "You know, the monument is here, and we need to make the best of it."

Can the communities surrounding the monument grab hold of their destinies before they get overrun? Scott Groene, who witnessed Moab's unchecked boom in the early 1990s, says wryly, "Everyone says they don't want to be Moab, and yet they end up doing everything they can to ensure that they will. Once the people show up who only want to make money, it's all over."

But Brad Barber is optimistic; he sees "an opportunity to create something great for southern Utah."

Pulling off Highway 12, I look out a seemingly endless expanse of domed, knobbed and sculpted rock. Like a dark and gleaming serpent, a narrow ribbon of road winds miraculously through this desert. Beyond, the dark rising of the Henry Mountains.

A canyon wall seems close enough to touch. I pick up a stone and give it a good heave. It looks good for awhile, riding high and strong, but then it slows and drops straight down, like Wile E. Coyote, into the abyss.

In this country, getting from here to there has never been easy.

Paul Larmer is HCN's associate editor.