Don’t trim Grand Staircase. If anything, expand it.

The Utah monument is sustaining small town tourism, a good substitute for extractive industry.

 

Crista Worthy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She writes and flies small airplanes in Idaho.


I just returned from a weeklong trip in and around my favorite place in the universe, the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It had been a decade since our last visit, so I relished every moment in the monument’s otherworldly landscapes. What amazed me most, however, was the increased number — and diversity — of visitors. There were more than 10 times as many people on the trails than I’d ever seen before.

First, we hiked to the Toadstools, on the monument’s southern edge. Last time we had the place to ourselves, but this time we met over 65 people, from across the globe. All were amazed to see this place and agreed that it felt like another planet. On a later hike to Calf Creek Falls, we passed about 100 people on the trail, where in 2007 I saw fewer than five. Grand Staircase is vast, but it occupies one of the least-populated corners of the United States. So how did all these people from across America, Europe and Asia, find out about this place where I used to hike for days without seeing a soul? Everyone I asked said they “saw photos on the internet.”

The Bureau of Land Management administers Grand Staircase, and the monument’s public affairs officer told me that visitation has roughly doubled since 2000. What’s more, back in 2003, the monument only had 19 special-recreation permit holders. Now 100 permits have been granted to businesses that take people hiking and climbing or on tours in the monument. 

I’m not complaining, mind you. Although I loved the solitude of Grand Staircase, I also saw how the small towns that ring the monument were hurting. Not now. In Kanab, the main street was lined with nice restaurants and numerous outfitters that are eager to take you climbing, hiking or backpacking. Hotels were full, and the town looked better than I’d ever seen it. North of the monument it was the same story: Towns are bustling and they have new, good restaurants, art galleries, outfitters and hotels.

Antelope Canyon on the Navajo Nation is one of the most popular destinations near the monument.

Page, Arizona, just south of the monument near Glen Canyon Dam, is also booming. On the Navajo reservation outside Page, you can tour Upper or Lower Antelope Canyon, two of the world’s most beautiful slot canyons. But I was astounded at the number of visitors pouring in as I was leaving. I was told that, during summer, 5,000 people a day now visit Antelope Canyon. At roughly $45 a person, that’s $225,000 per day. This is Navajo Nation land, and a tourist attraction like this is needed to replace income lost by the future closure of the Black Mesa coal mine and the polluting Navajo Generating Station.

Many of the Antelope Canyon visitors I saw were from Asia. My guide told me that when Microsoft put Antelope Canyon on Windows as a screensaver, his company’s phone started ringing off the hook the next day. It hasn’t stopped since. Everyone wants a personal photo of this unique and now famous place. A 2014–2015 survey by the Page Tourism Commission found that 43 percent of Page visitors were international while only 6 percent were Arizona residents, and that 47 percent of visitors went hiking, 44 percent did photography, and 41 percent toured the slot canyon. They spent an average of $442 per day, per person and contributed $260 million of economic activity to Coconino County, supporting 2,872 full-time-equivalent jobs.

Grand Staircase is also becoming a magnet for paleontology. Recently the fossilized skeleton of a 76 million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex was airlifted from the plateau to the Natural History Museum in Salt Lake City. It’s the most complete Tyrannosaur fossil ever discovered in the American Southwest, and some researchers think it might even be a relative that predates the animal we know as T. rex. 

But we all know that despite overwhelmingly positive comments about the monument to the government, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and President Donald Trump want to drastically shrink Grand Staircase to allow coal mining and oil and gas drilling. Industrialization will desecrate and pollute a monument that is filled with fossils and Native American artifacts. A few short-term fossil fuel jobs will be created — bringing in workers from elsewhere, mostly — but the dollars will flow out to distant corporations.

Though we hear how elected officials in Utah want a much smaller Grand Staircase, what did I see in windows in every town around the monument? Stickers that said, “Save Grand Staircase.” I saw no signs calling for the monument to be downsized or eliminated. The monument is creating good, sustainable jobs right now

Whatever the president decides to do, I’m calling my elected representatives and saying, “Leave this monument alone. If anything, it’s too small!”  

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