On a crisp June morning in the heart of Sagebrush Rebel country, a steady stream of rental cars, minivans and SUVs flows north from Kanab on Highway 89, heading toward the serene, red-rock walls of Angel Canyon. As the highway curves, the landscape flickers through sun and shadows, the sandstone glowing like embers in a fire. Beyond the sagebrush and juniper, a sublime yet unnerving desert of sand dunes sparsely dotted with yucca plants extends to the west.
These tourist vehicles resemble the ones heading for the nearby spectacular national parks -- Zion and Bryce -- and sinuous Lake Powell in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The traffic could be seen as part of the boom that southern Utah was promised in 1996, when President Bill Clinton designated a big slice of federal land near here as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, over the fierce objections of many locals.
But the throngs coming to Angel Canyon are neither intent on outdoor recreation nor here to protest federal land management. They've come to see puppies and other furry critters at the Best Friends Animal Society. At any given moment, Best Friends has roughly 1,700 dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, horses and other animals recuperating from abuse on its 3,800 acres of scenic private land, which has also served as the backdrop for many Western movies. Families, retired couples and all sorts of animal aficionados pack into the group's vans for guided tours that offer a chance to visit the Angel's Rest pet cemetery and a gift shop and enjoy a vegetarian lunch.
On the tour -- which takes me from Piggy Paradise to the Bunny House -- Barbara Williamson, a spokeswoman for the group, explains that what started in 1984 as a small ragtag hippie commune dedicated to protecting abandoned and sick pets has blossomed into one of the largest and best-known animal-welfare groups in the world. Like just about everyone I encounter at Best Friends, Williamson speaks with a zeal that invites comparisons with that of the region's dominant Mormon population. After discovering Best Friends, Williamson says, she just "had" to come work here in 2002, giving up her previous life as an Arizona university media handler. She now lives in nearby Kanab, with 15 cats. Other staff and volunteers share their past lives -- California bartender; 911 highway-patrol dispatcher; Boulder, Colo., chef; rocket scientist -- and describe how they were drawn here to help make Angel Canyon the country's largest "no-kill" animal shelter. Best Friends even has its own TV show, DogTown, on the National Geographic Channel. The group has orchestrated massive cat and rabbit rescues in faraway places, and took in 22 pit bulls that NFL quarterback Michael Vick used for illegal dogfighting.
Much as many locals saw the national monument as a power grab by distant environmentalists and a Democratic president, at first "the local people thought we were crazy," says Cyrus Mejia, one of Best Friends' founders. This is a conservative rural community, after all. In Kane County, of which Kanab is the seat, many of the 6,600 residents can trace their lineage back to the Mormon pioneers who settled the region in the 19th century. Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than six to one.
Most of the initial hostility toward Best Friends has subsided; the group has done a lot of local networking and in the process increased its annual revenue to $40 million. In 2009, more than 32,000 supporters made the pilgrimage to visit and volunteer at the sanctuary, providing a significant boost to the local economy. The nonprofit now employs nearly 400 people at its headquarters; almost one out of 10 locals works for it.
There's no obvious connection between Best Friends' success and the controversial 1.9-million-acre national monument. Mejia attributes the group's expansion to its trailblazing no-kill population-control policies, which are now practiced by many other animal-welfare groups. Best Friends shies away from anything remotely political, and Williamson says founders, staff and volunteers are spread across the spectrum in their personal backgrounds and politics.
But at the least, serendipity is at work in this desert. Even though Utah -- and especially Kane County -- continue to earn a reputation as leaders of the Interior West's anti-federal Sagebrush Rebellion, the community is changing. The local animal-welfare crowd dovetails neatly with a growing number of wilderness lovers and others who have moved here largely to enjoy southern Utah's public lands. Today, Kanab's main drag includes Laid Back Larry's vegetarian market. New restaurants and other small businesses cater to backpackers and Best Friends volunteers. A progressive minority has emerged as a force in Kane County, questioning local politicians' traditional hard-line stands and anti-federal bombast.
Kane County's signature rebellion -- a nearly decade-long legal battle over all-terrain-vehicle access to backcountry roads and trails in and around the monument -- might even be losing intensity.
"There's a lot of parallel motion," says Rich Csenge, who, with his wife, moved here from Maine five years ago to be close to Grand Staircase-Escalante. A wood-furniture craftsman, he started the Amazing Earthfest in 2006. It's an annual celebration of this area's public lands and natural and cultural history. About 1,100 people attended last year's Earthfest, which featured an interpretive dance held at Best Friends called "Invocation to Sustainability" as well as an ATV ride along a historic trail. Csenge -- who serves on the board of directors of Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, the nonprofit that advocates for the monument -- avoids speaking out on political issues, but he sees the festival as his "community service" to reduce polarization.
Robert Houston is a Mormon who, with his family, runs Houston's Trail's End Restaurant -- "where the waitresses wear 'guns on their hips, and smiles on their lips,' " according to the restaurant's website. A former county commissioner, he has lived in the area since 1960. He considers himself conservative, but he's also looking to reduce polarization. He believes in the need for moderate local leadership that knows when it's time to "bend."
It's too soon to say that southern Utah's bitter culture wars -- Old West versus New West, Sagebrush Rebels versus Enviro Warriors and Puppy Savers -- are over. But a kind of détente appears to be emerging.