Beauty and the Beast: The president's new monument forces southern Utah to face its tourism future
by Paul Larmer
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."
Kanab councilman Roger Holland says seven families in his Mormon Church ward lost their jobs with the closure of the Kaibab mill. "Some have gone on unemployment, then welfare," Holland says. "None of these families have come back to the point economically that they were before."
Tourism has continued to grow, but workers not only earn low wages, they frequently get laid off during the cold winter months. Roger Carter, manager of the Red Hills Best Western in Kanab, says he pares his summer staff of 35 to a baker's dozen during November, December and January.
"We love our tourists, especially now that they're all we have," says Carter, who moved his family to Kanab seven years ago from Flagstaff, Ariz. "But it's a boom-and-bust economy, too."
To this hard-hit community, the Andalex coal mine project looked like a savior. No wonder everyone was hopping mad when the President took that hope away.
Practical to the CORE
Later that evening, I meet with three men who have moved past anger to focus on Kane County's future. They lead a community organization called CORE - Coalition of Resources and Economies.
On my left is hotel manager, Roger Carter, who serves as CORE's president; on my right, Richard Negus, a 67-year-old London-born transplant who has been an animal-rights activist, journalist, and cat-show announcer at New York's Madison Square Garden. Dead ahead of me is the imposing figure of Jim Matson, the former manager of Kaibab Industries' logging mill in Fredonia, Ariz., 9 miles south of Kanab.
The mill closed two years ago, a victim of changing economic conditions and, according to Matson, appeals of federal timber sales on the Kaibab National Forest north of the Grand Canyon brought by environmentalists.
"Do you have any environmentalists in your group?" I ask.
"All 12 of us," quips Matson.
A forester by training, Matson, 52, has been reborn as a super-consultant on natural-resource conflicts and economic development. Kane County recently hired his firm to spend $200,000 in monument planning monies.
"We're a poor county, behind the times in land-use planning and economic development," he says. "The coal mine and the $1.5 million a year it would have provided - now that's gone and we have to quickly shift our priorities."
Matson says the monument catalyzed a countywide economic plan that he had been working on for months. The plan focuses on bringing small and medium-sized firms to the county - companies like Stamp "Em Up, a business started in Las Vegas by two Kanab women who recently moved the operation back to their hometown. The company manufactures rubber impressions for a variety of crafts, and at 200 employees, it's Kane County's biggest employer.
But Matson knows Kanab is a rookie in the recruitment game. Last year, he says, the owners of a tent and outdoor-gear manufacturing company scouted Kanab as a possible location for their business. They left quickly when town officials couldn't promise that the company's sewer, water, power and telecommunications needs would be met.
"We didn't even speak the same language," Matson recalls.
The new plan, which calls for zoning and upgrades in Kanab's infrastructure, should give the county the credibility it needs to start recruiting businesses from places like Southern California. It might be a tough sell.
Kanab's work force lacks the skills and expertise to attract the high-tech industries that are flocking to Utah's Wasatch Front, says economist Gil Miller. The nearest four-year college is several hours away, in Cedar City. And Kanab sits almost a hundred miles from an interstate and lacks commercial air service.
Kanab can't even attract the BLM. The agency recently decided to locate its temporary monument planning office in Cedar City, which is several hours away from the new monument and outside both Kane and Garfield counties. BLM monument supervisor Jerry Meredith says the agency didn't want to locate in any community near the monument for fear it would give the town an edge in the competition for permanent monument facilities. But there were logistical concerns as well, he admits.
Cedar City has an interstate, an airport, conference facilities and Southern Utah University, Meredith says. And, it has real estate.
"We needed 6,000 square feet of space and 18 houses for employees right away," says Meredith. Even Kanab would have been marginal, he says.
To Matson, the BLM's decision was "a slap in the face. It said that they didn't want to live with us."
It also said Kane County would, for the next three years, lose out on 18 high-paying government jobs.
If you designate it, will they come?
Driving the 60 miles east from Kanab to Big Water, pop. 350, which lies within a few miles of Lake Powell, I am struck by the immensity of the new monument. Its southern edge along the highway is a series of rugged, sparsely vegetated cliffs that extend as far as the eye can see.
The last protrusion is the Kaiparowits Plateau, which looms like the prow of a giant ship behind the town of Big Water. It is also the place where Andalex had planned to mine coal.
Big Water, with its dirt roads and boat-storage yards facing the highway, missed out on the mining boom, but its mayor, Gerry Rankin, says she is eager to capitalize on the new monument.
It isn't a Grand Canyon or a Lake Powell, she says, "but it's got a rough, difficult beauty, you might call it."
For Big Water to attract tourists, though, Rankin says it needs the BLM to develop some roads into the monument so that people can sightsee. The town also needs a sewer system, she says. Without one, it has been unable to attract hotels or other large commercial enterprises. The carloads of tourists now passing Big Water on their way to Lake Powell have little reason to stop.
Joe Judd says he doubts the monument will give Big Water much of a boost. The southern portion of the monument, he says, is "like your big toe; there's nothing sexy about it. You won't see anything that you can't find in two-thirds of the rest of the state."
There are few roads into the monument from the south, Judd notes, and most are nearly impassable for all but skilled four-wheel drivers. The people who come and want to see the new monument will have to stay around the outskirts or risk getting stuck or lost. Either way, they are a liability, in his view.
Judd recently jetted to Washington, D.C., with Garfield County Commissioner Louise Liston to ask Congress for $575,000 to help his county cope with everything from a stretched police force to growing numbers of lost and injured hikers, and overflowing garbage bins. Liston asked for $900,000 and an extra $2 million for road maintenance and improvement in the monument.
By asking for so much money, Judd seems to contradict his prediction that the monument will generate little interest. But early readings indicate that tourists are chomping at the bit. The BLM offices in Kanab, Escalante and Salt Lake City say they are swamped with thousands of requests for monument information and maps. A Web site put on the internet by the town of Escalante's Chamber of Commerce received 2,000 hits during February alone.
"We want all the tourism we can get," admits Matson, "but we don't want a Moab (Utah)-type situation," where hordes of visitors have failed to lift family income and strained public services to the breaking point.
Kane County's eager-but-cautious attitude toward tourism is based on experience. Even without the monument, towns like Kanab have begun to see the negative side of a minimum-wage economy and the outsiders it attracts. The newcomers may also have a tough time fitting in with the locals. The communities in Kane and Garfield counties share two characteristics: The citizens are predominately white and Mormon.
"The people that come down to fill these jobs have different values," says Tom Hatch, a sixth generation rancher who represents both Kane and Garfield counties in the state Legislature. "They work a season and then they go on welfare or unemployment. It's changed our schools and our kids. We have drugs and violence and some kids want to become gang members."
Steering the ship
Matson says the county will keep tourism's downside uppermost in its mind during the BLM's planning process. "We want to steer the ship rather than have someone steer it for us," he says.
Steering the ship means local control. The county wants monument visitor centers and staff offices located within communities such as Kanab and Escalante, not inside the monument. Environmentalists say they like that idea.
"There's no reason to put a Marriott in the middle of the Kaiparowits Plateau," says Scott Groene, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "This is actually a place where we all agree."
Jerry Meredith says his agency will consider placing several visitor centers in the communities around the monument. "This monument is so spread out that it doesn't lend itself to having one central headquarters," says Meredith, who previously oversaw the monument area, as the BLM's Cedar City district manager.
Kane County also wants to hire county employees to man new monument campgrounds and facilities. The idea of having local people filling these slots - instead of senior citizen volunteers or federal employees from afar - is novel.
"If we could get 150 jobs paying $8, $9 or $10 an hour with benefits, that would be a whole lot more than we have now," says Richard Negus, CORE's public affairs director.
Meredith says the BLM will consider contracting out services to the counties, though it is too early to commit.
Garfield County: Holding to the past
Garfield County is Kane County's colder, rougher brother. It has some of the most scenic - and already well-visited - portions of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (BLM officials say that more than 500,000 visited the monument area last year and this year the number is likely to boom.) But the county's cool and wet winter climate, compared to Kane County, also means a shorter tourism season. Its towns are smaller and scattered across a landscape that is more than 98 percent federally owned. All 4,000 county residents could fit into the town of Kanab.
It's snowing and raw as I drive through Panguitch, the county seat. And quiet. Only a handful of cars and trucks cluster around the open businesses - a grocery store and a gas station. Panguitch is the county's biggest town with a population of 1,400, but it looks like a carnival that has closed for the season. The museums, gift stores and hotels are here, but no customers. The town lost a timber mill and nearly 100 jobs two years ago.
Twenty-five miles and maybe six cars later, a lone coyote scampers across the road as I turn in to Bryce Canyon National Park. Ruby's Inn stands guard just outside the park entrance; compared with Panguitch, it bustles. A busload of foreign tourists load up in front of the lodge, which is run by a local family; inside, several dozen tourists dine at the cafe and browse in a souvenir shop the size of a department store.
At 80 years old, Ruby's Inn is the economic heavy of Garfield County, employing nearly 500 people during the summer months. But the minimum-wage-plus-tips pay can't compare to wages provided by a coal mine or a timber mill.
The next lonely hour down the road runs right through portions of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This northwestern side of the monument, with its hayfields surrounded by towering cliffs dotted with juniper and pine, seems a world away from the harsh desert I encountered near Big Water. And it is; it has taken me a whole day to travel around just the western half of the monument.
I finally reach Escalante, another Mormon-settled community where locals recently hung effigies of President Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. There's a room at the Prospector's Inn, but only after I track down one of the owners washing her truck out back.
She asks me if I'm here to see the monument. "Well, take a look out the window," she says when I say yes. "Everything you see is the monument except for this little town."
The woman says she doubts the monument will lead to a boom in Escalante. But later, as she serves dinner at the restaurant behind the hotel, she says hers is one of three new hotels to open in town within the last three years. And someone recently bought one of the original old, brick, two-story, Mormon settlers' houses which abound in this town, intending to run a bed and breakfast.
Even here, in a settlement that looks much as it did a century ago, change is in the air.
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.© High Country News