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 towns around the 1.7 million acre-monument, I found
deep-seated anger and mistrust. One county commissioner told me
President Clinton cynically designated the monument to win green
votes in the 1996 presidential election. A town official from Kanab
jabbed at me with a pointed finger: "You’re not one of them
damn environmentalists, are you?" before granting an interview.
There was plenty of talk of getting rid of the monument, through
lawsuits or legislation.
But not everyone was
confrontational. After venting about "Bill Clinton’s damn
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
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.
Fast forward to 2003: The monument and what it stands for
have 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 through
increasing its staff and building new visitor facilities.
The monument has also fortified 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
more profitably off into the sunset. This has happened because 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 have been
brokered by Bill Hedden, a Castle Valley, Utah, resident who works
for the Grand Canyon Trust. The deals have been good for the land
and good for the people.
Yet Old West resentments die
harder than the Old West itself.
The election of George
W. Bush and swing back to Republican power have allowed 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 highly capable manager of the monument; her sin was
that she had asked ranchers to take their cattle off the monument a
few weeks earlier than scheduled because of a severe drought. And
now, the alliance has targeted the grazing retirement program in
the name of defending the "custom and culture" of Escalante
country, even verbally attacking the ranchers who have
So far, their efforts have cowed the BLM
into delaying approval of several grazing deals under the guise of
that old bureaucratic favorite: We need more time to study the
issue. This swing back and forth from the New West to Old West
reads like a story from the Old Testament: Clinton used the
monument designation as a blunt political tool to bolster his
environmental credentials, so it’s only fair that angry
locals use an all-too-willing Bush administration to strike back.
Wrong. Stories like this make for good copy 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
Many locals are fed up with the acrimony.
Sitting in the Burr Trail Café in Boulder, Utah, recently, two
old-timers summed up both no-compromise environmentalists and
diehard monument critics this way: "those radicals."
as environmentalists must adjust to the reality that recreating a
pre-Columbus "virgin" wilderness is not possible in the 21st
century, so must Old West defenders recognize the futility of
trying to return southern Utah to the "good old days" of extractive
industrial development and ecologically destructive ranching.
The West has changed, and now southern Utahns and the BLM
must stand up to the short-sighted bullies who refuse to
acknowledge it. If they don’t, the monumental wounds will
never heal, and everyone will lose out.