Susan Hand, tanned and fit from years of boating on rivers and hiking in canyons, moved to Kanab in 1994 to open Willow Canyon Outdoor, an outdoor gear shop. Without the monument, she says, her business might not have succeeded.
Hand kept a low profile at first. "We were very cognizant of the fact that we were outsiders, and we tried to just live quietly," She says one afternoon as we sit on the patio behind her shop. "We just sort of wanted to blend in."
Hand's attitude changed when some school-board members began talking about using schoolchildren -- including her daughter -- to stage a protest against the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante. Since then, she has become a vocal supporter of the monument and other environmental causes; she helped organize a small group of counter-protesters that observed the Paria Canyon ride last year.
"There's a pretty strong alternative community (here)," Hand says, and its members have refused to sit back when the conservative majority's opinions spilled over into social policies. In 2006, the Kanab City Council passed the Natural Family Resolution, which endorsed "a local culture that upholds the marriage of a man to a woman, and a woman to a man, as ordained of God." It called for households to have a "full quiver of children" and said, "We envision young women growing into wives, homemakers, and mothers; and ... young men growing into husbands, home-builders, and fathers."
The resolution was drafted by the Sutherland Institute, a Salt Lake City think tank that promotes traditional values, and the language aligned closely with a 1995 statement by the Mormon Church. The institute circulated the resolution to every town in Utah; Kanab was the only one that acted on it. "I felt it was demeaning and hurtful," Hand says.
But if the resolution was designed to accentuate lines between old and new, straight and gay, Mormon and others, it had the opposite effect. Even some members of the Mormon Church, such as Houston, who say they agree with its principles, now question why the city council took on the issue. Most of the locals whom I asked about the resolution -- which is technically still on the books -- look back on it as an embarrassing over-reaction to all the changes in the region. "It's not as easy as 'them' and 'us,' " says Hand, who tries to maintain a nuanced demeanor -- fiery, but civil and amused -- when culture clashes flare up.
After the town built a new public swimming pool in 2008, the city council imposed a bikini ban in the name of decency. National media mocked the policy and the council quickly reversed its decision. Hand used the occasion to launch bikini sales in her store. "It's actually really entertaining living here," she says.
Despite its lively alternative community, in some ways Kane County's divisions appear to be deepening. "Kanab is more or less a microcosm of what is happening on a national scale," Hand muses. "There's a lot of anti-government sentiment, a lot of hostility, a lot of verbal abuse between groups that think differently. It's useful to be respectful and understand each other ... I think that part has deteriorated in the time that I've lived here."
Still, the community is gradually changing in a New West direction. The Best Friends Animal Society is a good example. Early on, the group formed partnerships with ranchers who share an animal-welfare ethic. In the lean '90s, when the group struggled to pay its bills and even buy pet food, local businesses extended lines of credit. One supermarket began making special produce orders and stocked tofu to serve the founders; Mejia even gave vegetarian cooking lessons at the grocery store. Restaurants including Trail's End now feed tables of Best Friends volunteers. Local lodging is very pet-friendly to accommodate the group's sleepover program, which sends dogs, cats and potbellied pigs into town to spend a night with visitors.
Yet some locals still see the group the way Shawna Cox does. A leader of UT/AZ Patriots, Cox warns that Best Friends is just "a cult." She also believes that the monument regulations and other federal lands policies are secretly controlled by the government of China.
In the summer evenings, the cedar gnats come out and pester anyone bold enough to tempt them. Sitting in a chair on his front lawn, Jim Matson appears undisturbed. After many years here, he has learned to adapt and endure.
Matson used to run a nearby timber mill, which closed in the mid-'90s. This past year, he worked as the local point person for the development of the hyper-ritzy Amangiri resort, near Lake Powell, which opened in October 2009. The five-star hotel -- part of the worldwide Aman Resorts chain -- is tucked away on 600 acres. It's architecturally designed to blend in with the desert and surrounding sandstone cliffs, and "basic" suites -- with glass walls, private courtyards and even heated floors and fireplaces -- start at $850 a night. Matson says Amangiri has already provided a nearly 5 percent bump to Kane County's tax base.
atson's next challenge starts this month, when he will be one of two new Kane County commissioners. Habbeshaw and another hard-line colleague are stepping down. On paper, Matson agrees with many of the positions held by Habbeshaw and Noel: He shares the heartburn over the monument, and he believes the lawsuits are the only way that Kane County will ever settle its differences with the BLM. (There are three seats on the commission, and the other new commissioner, Dirk Clayson, also supports the litigation.) But Matson also thinks the county commissioners have been "distracted." He says he plans to examine budgets and expenses to ensure that county services have not been neglected because of the litigation.
As far as launching more lawsuits, Matson says, "Anybody that wants to take a poke at the feds, have at it. I'm not interested in doing it just as Sunday sport."
Some locals hope that Matson will restore a sense of moderation. Similar optimism greeted a recent changing of the guard on the Kanab City Council. Both levels of local government still slant hard right, recently supporting proposals to develop a coal gasification plant within city limits and a coal mine about 40 miles away. But, "I think we have elected some more moderate people who are less paternalistic," says Hand. "The thing that makes me feel hopeful about our future as a community is that these are people who will engage in dialogue and try and listen to everybody and not represent a particular faction to an extreme."
The Obama administration appears at least somewhat open to negotiation, even as Kane County seems determined to stick to its guns. The BLM didn't arrest any of the motorized protesters who openly rebelled against the closure of Paria Canyon. And some other Utah counties are trying to work with the feds on less combative -- and less expensive -- ways to resolve road claims and public-lands management issues. Last summer, the Interior Department and Utah state government announced a pilot project in neighboring Iron County. It will approve "recordable disclaimers of interest" on roads where that county claims ownership and the federal government would be willing to basically relinquish its rights because there is no controversy over use. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar hailed the agreement as "a model for consensus-building and problem-solving," and officials said Iron County was selected because it's less hostile to the federal government than some other counties, basically pointing a finger at Kane.
Last March, Obama signed a compromise land conservation law negotiated by stakeholders in Washington County (another neighbor), designating 256,000 acres of wilderness and allowing the sale of thousands of federal acres around the city of St. George.
Yet the Sagebrush Rebellion continues to smolder -- apparently hotter than it's been in a while. In November, Utah voters overwhelmingly elected an avowed rebel, Mike Lee -- an attorney who represented Kane County in the full 10th Circuit Court hearing on the key RS 2477 case -- as their new U.S. senator. Lee replaces a somewhat moderate Republican, Bob Bennett, who supported locally negotiated wilderness deals. The incoming senator says he won't support any deals unless the conservative, Republican-dominated Legislature approves them -- a position that's also held by Mike Noel.
Noel has been front and center at several motorized protests around the state Capitol in 2009 and 2010, led by Take Back Utah, the latest group to channel the Sagebrush Rebellion. It rallies Tea Party supporters and voices the familiar demands for less regulation on federal lands. Noel remains a bulwark for his rural, archconservative constituency. He supports a new state law that seeks to enable Utah to seize federal lands through eminent domain, and devotes $3 million to defend the effort in court. Some legal scholars say that law stands on shaky legal ground and even Noel says "it doesn't have that good of a chance to prevail" in the courts.
Noel's participation in the governor's Balanced Resource Council, chaired by Ted Wilson, might provide an arena for some compromise, or at least conversation. The council weighs in on public-lands and natural-resources issues, and helped negotiate the Iron County pilot project. Last August -- after a Salt Lake Tribune editorial skewered Noel for "bitter, nonsensical ranting (that) does nothing but prolong the old and intractable debate" -- Wilson came to Noel's defense, saying: "Mike Noel may have shown his anger, but at times he has a point."
"I try my very best when I'm in the Resource Council to say, 'OK, is there an opportunity here to compromise on some of these issues?' and when I can I will," Noel says. "I will even talk to SUWA. I'm going to tell them what I think ... but I will at least listen to people."
It's a promising notion. In a 2008 report on ATV use, Utah State University researchers surveyed about 1,400 ATV drivers in Utah by mail and found they're mostly white, middle-aged, longtime Utah residents, with household incomes above $50,000, politically conservative, and -- from their perspective -- respectful of the environment. Half agreed with the statement that "Humans are severely abusing the environment." Two-thirds agreed with "Plants and animals have as much right as humans to exist." Eight hundred and fourteen of those who received the survey forms did not respond, so the results might be skewed toward more responsible ATV drivers. Still, there appears to be some opportunity for common ground.
"We just need to figure out what we can do cooperatively (with federal agencies), and then agree to disagree amicably, if and when there's a difference of opinion on how to do this stuff," Matson says. "There's much more to work on and I think that agreements can be made (rather) than to spend all of our time with these distractions. And, sometimes, when these things get to be ideologically based, they're huge distractions."
Joshua Zaffos is a freelance writer based in Fort Collins, Colo.
This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.