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.

Others in Escalante country were less than pleased. Remember the high school students who released dozens of black balloons, the residents who grimly set fire to an effigy of Clinton? These were the folks who’d grown up angry at the government, infuriated by the gradual tightening of grazing and logging restrictions on the surrounding public land. To them, the monument was just another example of federal meddling.

“The land wasn’t ours, but we felt like it was,” says former Kanab Mayor Karen Alvey. “It was as if we’d adopted a child, then been told we were no longer needed.”

Frustration about the monument has flared up regularly in recent years, and its expression has often been personal and threatening. In the town of Escalante, some tied effigies of backpackers to the hoods of their pickup trucks, then lined up their vehicles on the town’s main drag. When a couple of outspoken environmental activists from Berkeley, Calif., moved to town, their support of wilderness and opposition to a local reservoir project earned them repeated visits from vandals (HCN, 5/24/99: Greens not welcome in Escalante).

 

IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS BOILING STEW OF RESENTMENTS sat the Bureau of Land Management, freshly anointed by Clinton as a manager of national monuments. The agency, and the monument staff in particular, faced massive pressures from above, below, inside and out. Opponents in the local communities were mired in their own fury.

Environmentalists, though pleased about the president’s proclamation, were wary of the BLM’s livestock-and-mining past. High-level Park Service staffers felt they should have been the ones to manage world-class piece of land. And though many within the BLM were flattered and excited by the new responsibility, some of its old guard resented the exhortation to change.

The Clinton administration did its best to shore up the monument and the near-friendless agency. Kate Cannon’s predecessor, Jerry Meredith, got a $5 million budget in 1997 and a “dream team” of about 20 high-powered planners from the BLM and other state and federal agencies.

By the end of 1999, the team had come up with a management plan that emphasized scientific research and the primitive, “frontier” nature of the land (HCN, 11/22/99: Go tell it on the mountain). There would be no Park Service-style visitor center inside monument boundaries, no parking lots, no new paved roads.

Though grazing, recreation and most other uses would be more closely watched than they had been, any additional restrictions would be based on existing law.

The management plan got mostly good reviews from environmentalists. “They did a very good job of developing a management plan that was true to the (presidential) proclamation,” says Pam Eaton of The Wilderness Society’s Four Corners office.

Even local critics started to unbend a little. The monument had begun hiring a steady stream of local high-school interns, and town and county politicians started to talk about making lemonade out of lemons. Kane County Commissioner Joe Judd, who had been outraged by the proclamation, realized the monument could and should benefit his county. He began traveling to Washington, D.C., to stump for federal funds, and he even became friendly with the likes of Clinton’s Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt.

Judd says he’s done his best to forget his initial anger: “I tell people that if I try really hard, I can remember the monument (proclamation). But I don’t choose to.”

Dell LeFevre, one of the Garfield County commissioners who championed the paving of the Burr Trail, isn’t quite so sanguine. “It was a chickenshit trick, as underhanded as you can get,” he says without hesitation. But the monument has, at least indirectly, helped make his life a little bit easier.

Long before Clinton’s proclamation, the BLM had been gradually restricting LeFevre’s grazing allotment along the Escalante River. Fewer cattle on the riverbanks meant thicker willows, and the canyon was becoming tougher to navigate on horseback. One day, miles from home, LeFevre’s horse punched through the roof of a beaver den, fell, and pinned him firmly to the ground. His horse was unable to right itself, so LeFevre lay there for four or five hours, staring up at the blue sky and racking his brain for an escape.

LeFevre had just resigned himself to shooting and butchering the horse when he remembered the long-ago advice of a muleskinner acquaintance. He rummaged in his bag, pulled out a warm can of Pepsi, and carefully poured a few drops into the horse’s ear. The horse started, shifting just enough for LeFevre to scramble out and start extricating his horse.

“After that,” he says, “I thought, ‘What am I doing in this river?’” LeFevre called Bill Hedden, the director of the Grand Canyon Trust’s Moab, Utah, office. Since 1998, Hedden had been quietly negotiating with interested ranchers, offering to buy out and eventually retire their permits along the Escalante River (HCN, 2/1/99: Fun-hogs to replace cows in a Utah monument). LeFevre traded his permit in the river for part of an allotment on the Kaiparowits Plateau, a decision he says was good for both his business and his disposition.

LeFevre is a larger-than-life figure: a veteran county commissioner, the father of 14 adopted kids, and one of only two or three people in the entire county to make a full-time living off his cattle. His unexpected decision helped dampen the community’s wrath about the monument.

Just as things were looking — well, not peaceful, but more or less quietly resigned — a stack of butterfly ballots in Florida were counted and recounted, and national politics landed on the shores of Escalante country once again.

 

“I’LL BET THEY TOLD YOU they were making lemonade out of lemons,” says Mike Noel sarcastically, speaking of LeFevre, Judd and others. Noel is a recently elected Republican state legislator and a former BLM staffer; he spent 22 years working in the Kanab field office, the last of them as project director for the Kaiparowits coal mine proposal. He hates the monument, and he can’t stand the locals who have started to come to terms with it. Of all the people in Escalante country, monument supporters and opponents alike, Noel is one of a handful who still thinks the monument can be overturned.

Noel is one of the leaders of the Canyon Country Rural Alliance, a group formed from a defunct chapter of People for the USA. Though few of the leaders of the group are full-time cattlemen, they’re determined to keep the sinking industry afloat — even if it means bashing the ranchers who choose to deal with the Grand Canyon Trust.

“It doesn’t matter if the ranchers want to do it,” says Noel. “It just doesn’t matter. They’re selling their heritage for a mess of pottage.” LeFevre has heard such arguments more than a few times. “I’ve caught hell for this,” he says of his decision to work with the Grand Canyon Trust. “Not from ranchers, but from those who are going to save the world.” For once, he’s not talking about environmentalists.

Many residents, like LeFevre, consider the Canyon Country Rural Alliance extremist. But just before the 2000 presidential election, alliance leaders got an unexpectedly dramatic boost from Mother Nature.

The summer of 2000 was the third summer of severe drought in Escalante country; in the monument, even the sagebrush was dying. Kate Cannon, who had stepped into the manager’s job in 1998, took the advice of her range staff and warned all the ranchers on the monument that they might have to pull their cows off early. By mid-August, 80 to 90 percent of the forage was gone, and most ranchers had taken their cows off the land. Cannon ordered the remaining three ranchers to remove their cows by Sept. 1.

Ranchers Gene Griffin, Quinn Griffin, and Mary Bulloch refused to budge. In October, Cannon sent agency wranglers and a helicopter to find and impound the mostly wild cattle, and the ranchers became immediate heroes of the wise-use movement. Followed by a crew of supporters, the trio traveled to Salina, Utah, where the BLM had taken the cattle for sale. It’s not clear what happened next, but by the end of the day the local county sheriff had allowed the Griffins and Bulloch to open the sale-lot gate, load the animals into their trucks, and take off down the freeway for Arizona.

Mary Bulloch, who lives in a cramped trailer just south of the Utah state line, remembers the showdown fondly. “It was real Western around here for a while,” she says with a smile. “I got calls from all over the place, telling me congratulations, and I said, ‘Yep, there’s nothing like being a cowboy in the middle of society, is there?’”

The cattle dustup, combined with the results of the 2000 election, got Kane County feeling feisty all over again. “I saw that map with all the red squares,” says Noel, referring to the Republican sweep in the Rocky Mountains, “and I thought, ‘Finally, rural America is going to have a voice.’”

In spite of the Canyon Country Rural Alliance’s high hopes, and the swell of local encouragement they got after the presidential election, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument didn’t disappear along with President Clinton.

So Noel and his allies started in on Kate Cannon. Her enforcement of agency regulations — crystallized during the confrontation with the renegade ranchers — represented everything they disliked about the BLM’s new attitude. They complained loudly to the Utah congressional delegation, and some even traveled to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2001 to meet with then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tom Fulton.

“There was a drumbeat of criticism directed at her by Mike Noel and others,” says David Alberswerth, a former Interior staffer who now directs The Wilderness Society’s Bureau of Land Management program. “She was clearly singled out by disaffected local people, and they definitely had a great deal of influence.”

By December 2001, the disaffected had gotten their way. Fulton says he doesn’t recall a discussion of Cannon during the meeting in Washington, and says Cannon’s transfer was “an internal BLM decision.” Others inside and outside government offices, however, say the transfer order came from a high level in the Interior Department. The administration, some say privately, was eager to placate the monument opponents they’d wooed during the presidential campaign.

IN THE MONUMENT OFFICES, housed in an old middle school in Kanab, new monument manager Dave Hunsaker is good-naturedly doing his homework. For the past couple of weeks, he’s been exchanging letters to the editor with Kane County commissioner Mark Habbeshaw — the latest skirmish in the continuing brouhaha over the Grand Canyon Trust grazing retirements. “We are tenacious, if nothing else,” Hunsaker says wryly.

Kate Cannon’s successor doesn’t try to pretend that his job is an easy one. “Kate tried very hard to follow the (management) plan, and the counties had no one else to zero in on,” he says. “I, too, am finding that I get zeroed in on.”

Hunsaker hopes the arguments in Escalante country will someday target policies, not individuals. To that end, he’s trying to smooth out relationships with the monument’s most dogged critics. Hunsaker, a genial guy who jokes that he’s been “married to the BLM for years,” seems particularly well-qualified for the task.

Under Hunsaker’s direction, much of the work in these offices — and on the land — has continued apace since Kate Cannon’s departure. Sixty federal, state and university scientists are conducting research in and around the monument, studying everything from fossil turtles to native seed banks to local oral history. The monument staff has organized several popular lecture series in the area, and two visitors’ centers have opened in local communities.

Many in and out of the monument offices say the area’s fossils, artifacts and natural resources are better protected under the monument designation, thanks to Grand Staircase-Escalante’s substantial people power. Sage Sorensen, a longtime recreation planner for the agency, remembers when he was the only person keeping an eye on hikers, horses and dirt bikes in the Escalante canyons. “It was way more than one person could handle,” he remembers. He’s now relieved to be part of a 20-member recreation staff.

But the effects of Cannon’s sudden exit are still reverberating through these offices. Though new administrations routinely replace agency staff at the state and national levels, it’s extremely unusual for someone on Cannon’s rung to lose a job for political reasons. Her departure, along with the rapid-fire transfers of two other high-level BLM staffers — California BLM Desert District manager Tim Salt and Idaho state director Martha Hahn — was an unmistakable signal from the top. “Just seeing two or three moves like that was enough to scare people,” says a former BLM official who asked not to be named. “Everyone is afraid they’re going to get fired.”

So the monument staff is acting with a great deal more caution, especially when it comes to the more explosive local controversies. One of the most contentious — and hopelessly complicated — issues in Escalante country is the control of roads on public lands. The monument management plan cracked open that emotional debate, directing the agency to place “open” signs on the 908 miles of open monument roads and physically close the remaining routes. The monument transportation plan also requires that part of each year’s budget be spent to block off and otherwise close old roads.

The agency has signed the open monument roads that lie within Kane County, but it hasn’t placed signs on roads in neighboring Garfield County or closed any roads within the monument. Garfield County opposes the signing of roads on its side of the line, arguing that the county, not the federal government, controls the routes under Revised Statute 2477 of the Lode Mining Act of 1866. The Department of Interior halted processing of all RS 2477 road claims six years ago, and Hunsaker says the monument won’t take action until Interior delivers new guidance on the issue (HCN, 2/3/03: Road warriors back on the offensive). But many environmentalists say the BLM could start closing roads if it chose to.

“There’s nothing — except fear of a lawsuit — that’s keeping the BLM from enforcing its transportation plan,” says Liz Thomas of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The Grand Canyon Trust effort to retire four large grazing allotments along the Escalante River is also stuck in bureaucratic limbo. Though the group’s trades and buyouts have already removed cattle from all or part of some 18 allotments in the watershed — deals that were reviewed and approved by the agency “without a peep” from the local communities, says Bill Hedden — the Canyon Country Rural Alliance is doing its best to block the most recent proposals.

The alliance’s leaders have been encouraged by continuing local support; last year, several of them were elected to posts in town, county and state government. They’ve also taken heart from public statements by top-drawer Bush administration officials. Interior Solicitor William Myers opined in late 2002 that the BLM could not completely exclude cattle from an allotment within a federal grazing district; BLM director Kathleen Clarke, a Utah native, recently told the Society for Range Management that “for too long, there’s been an attitude that the only way to address range that is challenged is to remove the cattle.”

In January 2003, the Utah state office of the BLM approved the environmental analyses of the four proposed grazing retirements, but said the long-term fate of all retirements would be decided in a monument-wide environmental impact statement on grazing. That document is behind schedule, and a final version is not expected until November 2004.

Hedden, who has watched his once crowd-pleasing project devolve into a local bogeyman (“Don’t Trust the Trust,” says a common bumper sticker) says national politics and local resentment have been a deadly combination. “When the Bush administration got in, it was like throwing red meat to wolves,” he says. “The attitude was, ‘Now all we have to do is go for the throat, and make it so these new managers act like obedient sheep.’”

 

SO WHAT ABOUT THE NEW BLM? The national monuments, with Grand Staircase-Escalante as their flagship, were supposed to haul the agency into a brave new era. This administration is giving the BLM a not-so-gentle push in the opposite direction. What’s a conservation-minded land manager to do?

She, or he, can take comfort in two words: national monument. No national monument has ever been overturned (in fact, no one is quite sure how to do it) and, despite the best efforts of Mike Noel and his allies, the Grand Staircase-Escalante is unlikely to be an exception. Even the National Landscape Conservation System, the BLM’s new office for national monuments and other special designations, has so far weathered the political storm (see story below).

Interior Secretary Gale Norton has been much less enthusiastic about the slew of new monuments than her predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, and she has announced some guidelines that could weaken protections at the more recent designations, but she has said that planning for all monuments will move ahead.

Grand Staircase-Escalante’s budget has fluctuated slightly in recent years, but it was a substantial $6 million in fiscal year 2003. The other BLM monuments have much smaller budgets — ranging from less than half a million dollars for Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico to $2.4 million for the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in eastern Montana — but they have still been able to hire some staff and start work on their management plans.

Some of these monuments also enjoy a lot more local support than Grand Staircase-Escalante, perhaps because of Babbitt’s efforts to meet and negotiate with locals before Clinton continued his second-term monument tour. The popularity of some of these places has led to new problems (see story page 11), but a nearby fan base might help these monuments in unfriendly times.

So the lifespan of the BLM monuments is likely to be significantly longer than that of the Bush administration. The new, tougher BLM might not emerge as quickly as Clinton and Babbitt had hoped, but it could still be on its way.

Kate Cannon, for one, is hoping to be part of that agency. “If you’re going to manage land, you need to go where the land is,” she says. The hundreds of millions of acres managed by the BLM, she says, are becoming more and more important — not just for recreation, but also as open space.

Monument management shouldn’t turn the BLM into a clone of the Park Service, she points out. “Even though I love parks, I don’t want that model spread across the landscape,” she says, gesturing out her office window toward the stuffed parking lots of Grand Canyon Village. Parks, she says, are an “easy introduction” to wild land. The BLM monuments can offer a vastly more varied experience.

Cannon and many other agency-watchers say the monuments demand something quite different of the BLM: stricter enforcement of the agency’s own unique conservation regulations. The rules are based in long-standing law that declares multiple use, sustained yield, and environmental protection to be the agency’s guiding principles. These values have often fallen prey to funding cuts and short staffing. The monuments, with their bulked-up budgets and specialized staff, have given the agency a chance to improve on history.

“We have a commitment to the public,” says Cannon, “and I don’t mean we the monument, I mean we the BLM. The monument is a small test of whether the BLM can meet its commitment to the public.” Just a short stroll from Cannon’s office, on the southern lip of the Grand Canyon, President Clinton read the brief proclamation that established the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. To some, that September afternoon felt like the victorious end of an exhausting battle. To others, it felt like the ultimate insult.

From nearly seven years out, that fateful afternoon looks a little bit different. It has turned out to be just the beginning of a difficult test for the BLM, and the beginning of a new and even more complicated debate over Escalante country. The outcome of that test, and the debate that accompanies it, depends on the people who love this extraordinary place: those who live here and those who visit from afar, those who work outside the agency and those who work within it. The true ending of this story, it seems, has yet to be written.

Michelle Nijhuis is contributing editor of HCN.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

Monument presents a management morass

In Arizona’s Ironwood Forest National Monument, ranchers, recreationists and illegal immigrants are all fighting for space

The BLM’s conservation kingdom

The BLM’s new National Landscape Conservation System manages 15 monuments created by President Clinton, as well as 800 other protected areas