Utah’s Grand Staircase turns 5

Locals still wondering if the monument will provide an economic step up

 

ESCALANTE, Utah - The lonesome sandstone canyons and juniper-studded mesas that sweep across southern Utah may be rich in scenery, but they have never offered local residents easy paths to wealth.

Historically, ranching, logging and mining propped up a dozen small towns in the high desert between the Grand Canyon and the Aquarius Plateau. But the local economy took several hits in the early 1990s, including the closure of two sawmills that were major employers. President Clinton's creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996 was, many locals loudly prophesied, the last nail in the coffin for the area's traditional economy (HCN, 4/14/97: Beauty and the Beast).

When the controversial monument marked its fifth anniversary on Sept. 17, the event passed largely unnoticed in the wake of the East Coast terrorist attacks. But the lack of ceremony - or protest - may have had more to do with local acceptance of the monument. Though a small but vocal contingent of local anti-government activists continues to oppose the BLM-run monument, some business owners are sounding an optimistic note.

"The monument has been a huge economic benefit for Escalante, and it will be even more so in the next five years," says Linda Mansell, who opened Escalante's Grand Staircase B&B/Inn with her husband, Tom, in 1998. It's only the second such establishment in this town with 818 residents and a handful of 100-year-old brick houses on Main Street.

The Mansells moved to Escalante in 1998 after studying locations in 35 other states.

"We figured this was the best deal with the least amount of risk," says Linda, who is president of the Escalante Chamber of Commerce.

The Mansells believe that the monument's creation will bring new opportunities for tourism-related business - and a more stable economy than the boom and bust of resource-based industries.

But some business owners and community leaders don't see the promise of a resurrected economy playing out on the ground.

"Very little has changed since the monument was designated," says John Hawkes, the co-owner of the KOA Kampground in Cannonville (pop. 148). "We rarely get customers who say they've come specifically to see the monument."

No easy answers

The economic situation in Kane and Garfield counties did stabilize in 1996, and it has shown modest growth since then. There were a total of 2,474 jobs in Garfield County in 1999, 222 more than 1995. Kane County's gross taxable sales in 1999 was $97.3 million, 18 percent higher than 1995, and its average per capita income increased $3,997 to $20,600 over the same period. Property values have soared.

Ken Sizemore, a regional economist with the Five County Association of Governments in St. George, Utah, says that there have been "a handful of startups" - a new motel in Cannonville, the Mansells' bed and breakfast in Escalante, and a couple of new outfitters. He also says that 33 new BLM jobs "are by far the most significant direct economic impact of the monument."

Sizemore says manufacturing jobs at places such as Stampin' Up, a stamp business near Kanab, as well as tourism at Bryce Canyon National Park have also helped the economy. And while the monument's estimated annual visitation increased from nearly 450,000 to over 1 million between 1995 and 1999, he believes that monument-related tourist dollars aren't giving a major boost to the local economy.

KOA owner Hawkes, a supporter of the monument who has lived in southern Utah since 1986, says that most of the tourists he sees in Cannonville are on their way to the better-known Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks. And most of them don't bring much money to town.

"These folks may buy gas in Cannonville because they have to," says Hawkes, "but they bring everything else with them and camp out in the monument."

Kate Cannon, who directs the monument from its headquarters in Kanab, sees it differently. "There is a great reluctance among some locals to attribute any beneficial economic aspects to the Monument," she says. "It will take some time, but they eventually will recognize the benefits."

She points out that the BLM is spending at least $9 million to build five visitor centers around the monument; her agency has also distributed more than $1.7 million to the two counties for planning and emergency services since 1996. Cannon also says that requests for commercial outfitter permits nearly tripled this year.

The outfitting business has grown dramatically, agrees Sue Fearon, who runs horse-supplied walking trips in the monument and in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. But she says her company's exponential expansion began in 1993 - three years before the monument designation - and leveled off in 1999.

"I've had a hard time figuring out what is and is not monument related," Fearon says. "There are a lot of factors at play here and some of them are worldwide forces that we have very little control over."

Cultural and financial divide

Even though business owners like Fearon are enjoying rising incomes, many local residents complain about the low-wage jobs that new tourism businesses offer. Relatively few locals have started their own enterprises.

"(Most of) the locals didn't like (the monument) to begin with, they don't like it now and they won't ever like it," says Thayne Robson, director of the Bureau of Economic Analysis and Research at the University of Utah.

But Garfield County Commissioner Dell LeFevre sees a more material obstacle.

"You've got to have money to make money," LeFevre says. "These locals don't have money now, and they're not likely to get any more with $5-an-hour tourism jobs."

Another county commissioner in southern Utah, speaking on condition of anonymity, has a different theory. "Maybe we don't have the vision," he says.

Luther Propst, director of the conservation group Sonoran Institute, doesn't think Garfield County's future is as bleak as some locals believe.

"There is always a focus on the number of visitors and visitor days," says Propst, co-author of Balancing Nature and Commerce in Gateway Communities. "But that overlooks a much larger economic force driven by people who relocate to these areas for early retirement or to open small businesses that aren't necessarily related to tourism."

Between 1996 and 2000, the population in Garfield County grew by 7.1 percent, while Kane County expanded by 2.6 percent. Garfield County Commissioner LeFevre says that as many as two new homes are now being built near Boulder each month. "That kind of construction never used to happen (before the monument)," he says.

But these are mostly second homes, which LeFevre says are changing the character of the local community.

"The environmentalists got what they wanted," he says. "They've shut down logging and grazing and now all these meadows are getting busted up into five-acre ranchettes."

Ironically, one of the most heated development proposals came from a former chair of the Sierra Club's Utah chapter, prominent book publisher Gibbs Smith. In 1998, he announced plans to develop a shopping center and subdivision near the monument, a move which ultimately cost Smith his position on the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance's advisory board. The proposal is still under consideration.

As the area feels its way toward an uncertain future, tourism boosters now have to contend with more than just local controversy. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks seem to have quashed - at least temporarily - the entire country's tourism industry and have left local business owners wondering whether anyone is going to visit.

But at the Escalante Chamber of Commerce, Linda Mansell is maintaining a long-term outlook. "It's like going to high school reunions," she says. "You don't really see major changes until you hit 10 or 20 years."

Lin Alder writes from Springdale, Utah.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Kate Cannon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, 435/644-4300;
  • Ken Sizemore, Five County Association of Governments, 435/673-3548;
  • Linda Mansell, Escalante Chamber of Commerce, 435/826-4810.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Lin Alder

Thumbnail photo: James Marvin Phelps/CC Flickr

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