I visited the spectacular Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, when it was still a raw wound in the body politic of southern Utah. As I talked to people in the scattered, dusty towns around the almost 1.9 million-acre-monument, I found deep-seated anger. There was the rancher who predicted he would never again be allowed to graze cattle on the monument, and the local county commissioner, who condemned Bill Clinton for using the monument as a political chip to win green votes in the 1996 presidential election. There was plenty of talk of getting rid of the monument, through lawsuits or legislation.
But not everyone was so confrontational. In
fact, after venting about “Bill Clinton’s goddamn
monument,” some quietly told me that they felt the
designation would bring new attention — and a badly needed
economic shot in the arm — to their communities. They
recognized something that the most entrenched opponents would not:
The West had changed. Ranching, logging and mining, the perceived
mainstays of the southern Utah economy, were already shadows of
their former selves. Tourism was on the rise, and a new monument
would make it rise even faster.
Over time, this reality
has become more accepted by people in southern Utah. More people
are coming to the area, and new businesses have sprung up to
accommodate them. The federal agency overseeing the monument, the
Bureau of Land Management, has bolstered the local economy
increasing its staff and building new visitor facilities.
The monument has also bolstered the agency’s legal obligation
to protect the environment, which, in turn, has provided an
opportunity for one fading industry of the traditional West to ride
gracefully off into the sunset. Over the past several years, a
number of ranchers have agreed to stop grazing sensitive lands
within the monument in exchange for money or grazing rights on
less-sensitive lands elsewhere. These buyouts and trades, brokered
by Bill Hedden of the Grand Canyon Trust, have been good for land
and the people.
Yet, as Michelle Nijhuis reports in this
issue, Old West resentments die harder than the Old West itself.
The election of George W. Bush and the swing back to Republican
power have encouraged a few opportunists to reopen old wounds. In
2001, Canyon Country Rural Alliance, a group headed by former BLM
staffer and state legislator Mike Noel, convinced administration
officials to remove Kate Cannon, the very capable manager of the
monument; her sin was that she had asked ranchers to remove their
cattle from the monument a few weeks earlier than scheduled because
of a severe drought. And now, the alliance has set in on the
grazing retirement program in the name of defending the
“custom and culture” of Escalante country — even
verbally attacking the ranchers who have participated.
This swing back and forth from the New West to the Old reads like
an eye-for-an-eye story from the Old Testament: Clinton used the
monument designation as a blunt political tool to bolster his
chances in the 1996 election, so it’s only fair that the
angry locals use an all-too-willing Bush administration to strike
Wrong. Stories like this make for good
headlines in the newspapers, but they represent a step backward for
the West. The truth is that, as opportunistic as Clinton’s
late-inning designation might have been, it was a step forward for
the economy and environment of southern Utah. The monument is here
to stay, and no amount of harassment from the perpetually
disgruntled will change that.
Many locals are fed up with
the acrimony. On her recent trip around the monument, Nijhuis ran
across old-timers Paul Hansen and Dan Coleman at the Burr Trail
Café in Boulder, Utah. “Those radicals” was the
catchall phrase the former ranchers used to describe both
environmentalists and diehard monument critics.
has changed, and it’s time for southern Utahns to stand up to
the bullies still railing against the monument and its staff. If
they don’t, the wounds will never heal, and everyone will