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!”  

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].

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Board of Diablo Trust is seeking applications for full-time Program Manager with duties of overseeing the coordination and administration of the Diablo Trusts ongoing...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • SECLUDED TWO-STORY CUSTOM LOG HOME
    in 16-acre pinion pine forest with year-round stream, mountain views, wildlife. Garage, root cellar, wood shop, one-room cabin, RV shed, pasture, garden. [email protected]
  • BEAUTIFUL, CUSTOM RASTRA BLOCK ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME
    Mature, six-acre Ponderosa forest, open pasture. Spectacular Sangre de Cristo mountain & valley views. Well maintained, paved county road, easy drive to world-class skiing &...
  • OJO CALIENTE RIVERSIDE SECLUSION
    Private, 2bd/2bath green home on 2 acres on the Ojo Caliente River between the confluence of the Chama & Rio Grande Rivers. Close to hiking,...
  • CLASSIC NEW MEXICO MOUNTAIN VIEWS
    of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. 3.19 acre lot to build on to escape the crush of city/town life. Short distance to trails, skiing, fishing,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • ASSOCIATE OF PROGRAMS
    The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by improving local decision-making, creating a shared sense of belonging, and ultimately...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...