Two factions face off over Grand Staircase-Escalante

A community in gridlock over the monument’s future.


Geneen Marie Haugen, Ph.D., is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She lives and writes in Utah.

Alpenglow lights the sandstone mesas as my friends and I drive through Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. We’re on our way to a public hearing at the Garfield County Courthouse. No one in this vehicle — and perhaps no one carpooling ahead or behind us — voted for the county commissioners who now propose to shrink the monument. We’re constituents without much influence. Nonetheless, we’re on the road early, headed to the small town of Panguitch, Utah, two hours from our homes. The sandstone labyrinth we traverse is beautiful enough to break any hearts available for breaking.

Perhaps a dozen of our allies will have a chance to speak to the commissioners. We’re hand-delivering dozens of letters to these men. But no one expects a different outcome from that in neighboring Kane County, whose commissioners supported the non-binding resolution to shrink the monument.

Our small, regional newsweekly doesn’t investigate outsider involvement in public lands policy, so many locals are unaware of the Koch brothers-supported American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its influence on Utah’s Republican politicians, including Republican Gov. Gary Herbert. Even our county commissioners may be unaware of being manipulated by outside corporate interests.

In the BLM’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, local grudges and national politics have created a nasty quagmire.

Upon our arrival at the courthouse, we’re split into two groups, assigned numbers and ordered to remain in line except for closely monitored bathroom breaks. The group favoring the resolution to shrink the Grand Staircase lines up just across a tape barrier, but there is no conversation between factions. The “shrinkers” turn their backs to the rest of us, who stand near enough to reach out and tap an arm. As I do, after the commissioners decide who will be allowed to speak. 

“Excuse me,” I say to one woman in a group of six or seven. “May I ask a question? Did any of you sign up to be a speaker?” “Oh, no,” one says. A few shake their heads. They all turn away. The line starts to move as small numbers of people are called inside to the too-small chamber, and no one from “the other side” makes eye contact or smiles. I hear myself saying, “Hey, here’s a great idea: Let’s not talk to each other! It’s too dangerous.” There are times when Coyote speaks from my mouth, surprising even me, but no one looks in my direction. The shrinkers file past or lean against the courthouse in the sun. Many of the men wear black cowboy hats. There are at least six law enforcement agents assigned to this gathering of about 200 people, many citizens armed with signs. 

Divisiveness regarding the desirability of shrinking the Grand Staircase — or eliminating altogether the new Bears Ears National Monument — is built into the Utah politicians’ agendas. Divide and conquer is a time tested strategy of the ruling class. But as I study my fellow citizens, I wonder why it is so easy to pit us against each other. I recognize that there is a genuine difference of cultures — not only in worldview and probably religion — but in something resembling class. I don’t know if any of the old-timers value the contributions of the recent arrivals, but I do know many newcomers who respect, as I do, the close-to-the-ground living, self-reliance and community values of Utah’s pioneer families.

Newcomers — who are often outdoor recreationists — broadly support maintaining the monument boundary, while the old-timers resent the monument’s creation. The newcomers arrive with skills, education and vision from other places, and often bring money enough to build houses, start businesses, retire, or occupy a second home. Many old-timers regard the new people as alien outsiders who compromise traditional values and livelihoods based on timber, mining and ranching.

But on the Grand Staircase, there is scant evidence of valuable timber or cost-effective coal, and without government subsidies, the desert isn’t economically viable for ranchers to graze. But the Garfield County commissioners aren’t really interested in my opinion, or in the ideas of my colleagues and neighbors. They’re not interested in building bridges or in reading our letters. They have already decided to approve the resolution, as they promptly do when the few speakers allowed have barely concluded.

The commissioners’ vote changes nothing except to amplify the existing divisions and mutual suspicion. It’s an adolescent way to govern. True leaders would commit the radical act of engaging other people in conversation, inviting questions and genuine listening, with love of the land as our common ground. If our minds and hearts could open, what might we create together with our collective skills, resources and passion?

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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