Change comes slowly to Escalante country

In the BLM’s showcase monument, local grudges and national politics create a nasty quagmire

  • LIKE ANOTHER GALAXY: A ray of light glows at the end of an unnamed slot canyon near the Escalante River in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

    Lin Alder
  • "The monument is a small test of whether the BLM can meet its commitment to the public." - Kate Cannon, former manager Grand Staircase-Escalante National

    Leah Hogsten, Salt Lake Tribune
  • LAND OF MANY USES: Cowboys herd cattle in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

    Lin Alder
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante map

    Diane Sylvain
  • "It was a chickenshit trick, as underhanded as you can get." - Dell LeFevre, Garfield County commissioner

    Lin Alder
  • COMING INTO THE COUNTRY: A mountain biker pedals down the Burr Trail, a controversial paved road within the grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

    Lin Alder
  • "It doesn't matter if the ranchers want to do it. They're selling their heritage for a mess of pottage." -Mike Noel, sagebrush rebel

    Lin Alder
  • "We are tenacious, if nothing else. - Dave Hunsaker, manager, Grand Staircase-Escalante National

    Lin Alder

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — Kate Cannon looks like she was born to work here. The spacious deputy superintendent’s office, the trim Park Service uniform, the low-watt glow of self-assurance; she’s got all the trappings of an accomplished bureaucrat. She’s got the experience, too. She speaks nostalgically of long-ago summers spent at Isle Royale and Canyonlands, and of the fistful of parks she left behind during her climb up the agency ladder. This post at the Grand Canyon could easily be the high point of a successful career.

Cannon, though, has already had her dream job, and it wasn’t with the National Park Service. Little more than a year ago, she was the proud manager of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah — the first national monument overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

The job demanded much more than a change of uniform. The almost 1.9 million-acre monument was intended not only for sightseeing and backpacking and scientific research, but also for limited grazing and oil and gas development. The monument aimed to manage all these uses carefully, for the long-term health of the land. Grand Staircase-Escalante also had a larger mission: Its staff was to lead the way for 14 other, smaller BLM national monuments established during the Clinton administration. Together, the new monuments cover nearly 5 million acres, a small but significant share of the more than 260 million acres managed by the BLM.

It was a huge, high-stakes experiment for the BLM, and success required changing the very culture of the agency. For Cannon, it was a plum of a job. The redrock canyons were staggeringly beautiful, the research possibilities were endless, and the potential for a new, more conservation-oriented sort of multiple-use management was real and immediate. It was, she says, the most complex challenge of her career. The challenge was short-lived. In late 2001, after about three years in the manager’s office, Cannon was offered a choice by her superiors: Take a post with the Park Service at the Grand Canyon, or move to Washington, D.C., and oversee an environmental impact statement for energy development on BLM lands.

The decision wasn’t difficult. By the end of the year, Cannon had packed up and moved south.

Cannon’s abrupt departure, many say, has been chilling for the colleagues she left behind, and that fear has slowed the agency’s massive effort to transform itself. How the Bureau of Land Management lost this highly qualified staffer, and also the momentum she and others brought with them, is a peculiar story of local grudges, presidential politics, and the nasty collision between them.


THOSE WHO LIVE NEAR THE ESCALANTE canyons call their home “the country,” as if the canyon rims on the eastern horizon are the shores of an independent republic. “My family has always ranched in this country, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” some say. Or, “Before I got to the country, I was just a climbing bum.” Or, “Him? He just hasn’t been in this country long enough to understand it.”

The most common expression, though, goes something like this: “I came to the country, and I fell in love at first sight.”

No wonder. The canyons’ smooth red rocks and green cottonwood oases and crooked slices of blue sky have an overpowering, almost narcotic beauty. Sometimes, in some places, this land doesn’t just look like another country. It looks like another galaxy.

So it’s hard to find a neutral person around here. Loyalties are cherished for generations, and memories are as long and deep as nearby Glen Canyon. Nearly everyone loves the land, knows it well, and is dead sure what should and shouldn’t be done with it.

Maybe that’s why the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the state’s most aggressive and influential environmental group, got its start here a couple of decades ago, and why these small towns have also produced some of the region’s most reactionary county commissioners. The generation-long struggle between environmentalists and their foes in Escalante country has been nothing less than a holy war. Though it’s been mostly a battle of words, casualties have included cows (shot), cabins (burned), bulldozers (sabotaged) and the Burr Trail, known as one of the most spectacular backcountry drives in the world (paved). On Sept. 18, 1996, then-President Clinton forced this complicated, contentious little nation to face the rest of the world. By establishing the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Clinton opened the debate over the Escalante country’s future to a national constituency (HCN, 4/14/97: Beauty and the Beast: The president's new monument forces southern Utah to face its tourism future).

The surprise proclamation was a gigantic victory for environmentalists, who had been trying for years to block a proposed coal mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau. The monument, which prevented new mineral leases on its lands, effectively squelched the project.