Protect it, don't pave it

  Dear HCN:


Your cover story on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (HCN, 4/14/97) stated that the challenge facing the Bureau of Land Management in planning for the monument is "to protect the land and make it accessible." Wrong. The comment incorrectly assumes the BLM is confronted with the same bedeviling mandate adopted by some national park managers: to preserve natural values while accommodating rising visitation.


President Clinton's proclamation establishing the monument cuts short arguments for building tourist infrastructure; rather, this monument was created solely for the purpose of protecting natural and historic values. Clinton's proclamation recognized that "remoteness, limited travel corridors, and low visitation have all helped to preserve intact the monument's important ecological values." BLM's management of the region must perpetuate those conditions.


Conoco Inc., a subsidiary of Dupont, has an application pending with BLM to drill for oil in the heart of the monument, a region recently determined by Car and Driver magazine to be the most remote in the lower 48 states. The first indication of BLM's capability as an administrator will be its response to this effort to transform quiet canyons into an oil field industrial zone. If the agency allows oil drilling in the monument, we need a new manager.


Under the president's proclamation, the BLM's management plan should recognize and protect the 1.3 million acres of proposed wilderness within the monument. Further, BLM's plan must prohibit the construction of tourist infrastructure inside the area and disallow any improvement of existing dirt roads.


The lesson learned from some of our national parks is: Build a road and we will come, and come in great numbers. The monument is likely to face enormous recreational pressure, especially the Escalante region. Paving over now rutted and rocky roads as some rural county commissioners have advocated will speed the crowds into the canyons, threatening the natural values the monument was established to protect. New highways would encourage the off-road vehicle crowd to venture farther into the backcountry, tracking over sensitive soil crusts and disturbing wildlife.


Despite cries for development there is common ground here between environmentalists and local communities. If the towns surrounding the monument choose to make tourism a component of their economy, the chambers of commerce should encourage visitors to stay in their communities, rather than advocate for roads to hasten tourists out of town and into the monument.


Paving the Smoky Mountain dirt road would create a bypass around Kanab; upgrading the dirt Cottonwood Wash road would leave RVs parking in now lonely canyons, rather than in campgrounds built adjacent to towns; slathering asphalt on the Hole-in-the-Rock route will only pile more hikers into some of the already overused Escalante side canyons, not add to motel receipts.


If public funds are appropriated for tourist facilities, the money should be directed to enhancing the surrounding small communities, not developing the monument. The president said protect it, not pave it.


Scott Groene


Salt Lake City, Utah





The writer is issues coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.