Economic diplomacy in Sagebrush Rebel country

A new science and education center gives rural Utah a boost.


On a chilly October day, as sheets of rain work their way down the slopes of the Abajo Mountains nearby, construction workers are putting the final touches on the Canyon Country Discovery Center, just north of Monticello, Utah. Even in its not-quite-finished state, the facility is striking, with an airy, kiva-esque center hall, and a sprawling map of the Colorado Plateau that’s incorporated into the concrete floor.

The Canyon Country Discovery Center's completion coincided with the construction of the Latigo Wind facility nearby. The turbines are visible behind the Center.

The $10 million facility on a 48-acre plot of land will be a sort of visitor center and museum for the entire Colorado Plateau, a big chunk of which is visible from the huge windows of the structure. It will also serve as the new campus for the 30-year-old Four Corners School of Outdoor Education. It’s a big step up for the school, which until this winter was based out of a dingy, low-ceilinged old building on the other side of town. It’s also a potentially big leap for Monticello, the San Juan County seat, a place better known for its ongoing Sagebrush Rebellion than for education or science.

“I like to think of what we’re doing here as economic development diplomacy,” says Janet Ross, the 62-year-old executive director of the Center. Dressed in a pastel-plaid shirt, jeans and white sneakers, Ross somehow manages to exude both warmth, and a take-no-shit-from-anyone attitude, a combination of traits that has surely helped her get the Center built.

Ross started the Four Corners School in 1984 in Monticello, taking folks out into the canyon country with archaeologists, geologists and other scholars. In 1998, with the educational adventure field saturated, the Four Corners School carved out another niche: Developing Colorado Plateau-focused curricula and “hands-on, place-based” professional development for school teachers. The school also runs the Canyon Country Youth Corps, which builds trails, works on river restoration and does other service projects around the region.

Though the school attracted clientele from across the nation, it remained under the radar locally for years. After another rural southern Utah town, Escalante, rejected a state-pushed proposal for a science center there, a group of community economic development folks decided to try to lure it to Monticello, instead. They approached Ross for help.

The main hall of the Canyon Country Discovery Center.

“The lesson from the Escalante story was that a top-down approach doesn’t work,” says Ross. So she and her compatriots got local input from the start of the long and sometimes arduous process of planning the project. That included making sure that the community was generally okay with the fact that Ross sat on the board of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which isn’t exactly loved in these parts. It turned out not to be a deal-killer, but Ross resigned from the SUWA board, nevertheless.

Since its inception, money had always trickled down from the school to the town in the form of a handful of staff jobs. Plus, some of the 70 or so youth corps employees are from the area (and about half of them are Native American). But the move to the new campus comes with a doubling of the school’s budget and a tripling of its staff, to 30, which can make a big difference in a town of 2,000. The Center is expected to bolster tourism, as well.

Some 2 million people pass through Monticello every year, but nearly all of them are on their way to somewhere else: Moab, Lake Powell, Canyonlands. Some stop here for gas, or perhaps to check out the small Mormon Temple, but not much else. The Center is intended to give folks another reason to stick around. The school will host its teacher trainees there, as well as conferences, and since it doesn’t have any lodging on-site, it's benefiting, not competing with, local businesses.

The Center joins a growing list of education-as-rural-economic-development endeavors across the West. The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center has become a local institution in Cortez, Colorado; Solar Energy International draws students from around the world to its campus in Paonia, Colorado, home of High Country News. And one of the pioneers in the field is the National Outdoor Leadership School, founded in Lander, Wyoming, in 1965. It put that town “on the map” in the same way proponents hope the Center will do for Monticello.

Not everyone’s thrilled with the facility. Jim Stiles, publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr, worried in a Zephyr commentary that the Center could be a factor in transforming rural, conservative Monticello into another Moab-like “progressive/mainstream ‘green’ New West population center.” Those who have experienced horizontal snowfall in Monticello in May, even as Moab enjoys sunshine and temperatures in the 70s, might question the probability of such a fate.

And San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, best known for being convicted for his illegal ATV protest ride down Recapture Canyon, has suggested that the Center is a sort of Trojan Horse sent in by the pro-wilderness movement. Supporting the theory, Stiles points to the fact that a chunk of the $12 million Ross and company raised for construction and operation came from the likes of Hansjorg Wyss and David Bonderman, big-time donors to green causes.

But the resistance couldn’t compete with the strong base of local support. One of the prime movers of the project was Bill Boyle, editor of the San Juan Record newspaper. He remains its biggest booster and sits on the Center’s board, as does the owner of the local grocery store. And on Dec. 3, nearly 200 locals attended an open house at the new Center, giving it “rave reviews,” according to Boyle’s account. “It took a lot of energy and a lot of time from local visionaries,” says Ross, “and it didn’t get shut down by the naysayers." 

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of High Country News. 

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