Reopening the wounds in southern Utah

  • Paul Larmer


I visited the spectacular Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, when it was still a raw wound in the body politic of southern Utah. As I talked to people in the scattered, dusty towns around the almost 1.9 million-acre-monument, I found deep-seated anger. There was the rancher who predicted he would never again be allowed to graze cattle on the monument, and the local county commissioner, who condemned Bill Clinton for using the monument as a political chip to win green votes in the 1996 presidential election. There was plenty of talk of getting rid of the monument, through lawsuits or legislation.

But not everyone was so confrontational. In fact, after venting about “Bill Clinton’s goddamn monument,” some quietly told me that they felt the designation would bring new attention — and a badly needed economic shot in the arm — to their communities. They recognized something that the most entrenched opponents would not: The West had changed. Ranching, logging and mining, the perceived mainstays of the southern Utah economy, were already shadows of their former selves. Tourism was on the rise, and a new monument would make it rise even faster.

Over time, this reality has become more accepted by people in southern Utah. More people are coming to the area, and new businesses have sprung up to accommodate them. The federal agency overseeing the monument, the Bureau of Land Management, has bolstered the local economy increasing its staff and building new visitor facilities.

The monument has also bolstered the agency’s legal obligation to protect the environment, which, in turn, has provided an opportunity for one fading industry of the traditional West to ride gracefully off into the sunset. Over the past several years, a number of ranchers have agreed to stop grazing sensitive lands within the monument in exchange for money or grazing rights on less-sensitive lands elsewhere. These buyouts and trades, brokered by Bill Hedden of the Grand Canyon Trust, have been good for land and the people.

Yet, as Michelle Nijhuis reports in this issue, Old West resentments die harder than the Old West itself. The election of George W. Bush and the swing back to Republican power have encouraged a few opportunists to reopen old wounds. In 2001, Canyon Country Rural Alliance, a group headed by former BLM staffer and state legislator Mike Noel, convinced administration officials to remove Kate Cannon, the very capable manager of the monument; her sin was that she had asked ranchers to remove their cattle from the monument a few weeks earlier than scheduled because of a severe drought. And now, the alliance has set in on the grazing retirement program in the name of defending the “custom and culture” of Escalante country — even verbally attacking the ranchers who have participated.

This swing back and forth from the New West to the Old reads like an eye-for-an-eye story from the Old Testament: Clinton used the monument designation as a blunt political tool to bolster his chances in the 1996 election, so it’s only fair that the angry locals use an all-too-willing Bush administration to strike back. Right?

Wrong. Stories like this make for good headlines in the newspapers, but they represent a step backward for the West. The truth is that, as opportunistic as Clinton’s late-inning designation might have been, it was a step forward for the economy and environment of southern Utah. The monument is here to stay, and no amount of harassment from the perpetually disgruntled will change that.

Many locals are fed up with the acrimony. On her recent trip around the monument, Nijhuis ran across old-timers Paul Hansen and Dan Coleman at the Burr Trail Café in Boulder, Utah. “Those radicals” was the catchall phrase the former ranchers used to describe both environmentalists and diehard monument critics.

The West has changed, and it’s time for southern Utahns to stand up to the bullies still railing against the monument and its staff. If they don’t, the wounds will never heal, and everyone will lose out.

Paul Larmer is executive director at HCN.

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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