Utah’s Sagebrush Rebellion capital mellows as animal-lovers and enviros move in

  • Kanab's softer side shows through at the entrance to town.

    John Greene
  • Ray Wells and Bryce Nuckols ride in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

    Nick Adams
  • At the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, near Kanab, Utah, Keeley Floyd with Giah and Nikon.

    Nick Adams
  • Parrot Garden vet-tech Wendy Hatchel holds Zoey, a 10-week-old green-winged macaw.

    Nick Adams
  • Cyrus Mejia, one of the founders of Best Friends, with Roxy, a rescued Doberman.

    Nick Adams
  • Donna Arellano feeds horses.

    Nick Adams
  • Four-wheeling at a wilderness study area near the Rimrocks on Brigham Bench in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

    Lin Alder
  • Utah State Rep. Mike Noel stands near a fresh Kane County road marker on Skutumpah Road -- Kane County's first RS 2477 victory -- on the western edge of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

    Nick Adams
  • Sky Chaney, president of the Taxpayers Association of Kane County, shows a letter from Kane County Attorney Jim Scarth in which Scarth estimated it would cost $27,000 and take "a few years" to collect requested records.

    Nick Adams
  • Bryce Nuckols, left, and Ray Wells ride the Nephi Pasture Road in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where more than 550 miles of trails are designated for ATVs

    Nick Adams

Page 2

Mike Noel, a native Utahn who holds a bachelor's degree in zoology and a master's in plant ecology, has lived in the Kanab area for more than 30 years. He's been a Mormon bishop, a basketball coach and a Boy Scout leader, and has run a small cattle ranch, a local restaurant and the local water conservancy district. He has relatives who died of cancer linked to fallout from atomic bomb tests in Nevada, and he's advocated for more benefits for such "downwinders." He was doing environmental impact analyses for the BLM when the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument was created. Noel resented the fact that the feds hadn't consulted with local officials; he also objected to the monument's prohibition of a big coal mine proposed for the Kaiparowits Plateau. He quit his BLM job and channeled his anger into activism in the late 1990s, organizing local chapters of People for the USA, a grassroots group that became one of the loudest mouthpieces of the Sagebrush Rebellion.

Mark Habbeshaw attended an early meeting of People for the USA and struck up a kind of partnership with Noel. Habbeshaw, a retired police detective from Las Vegas who had also worked as a U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger on Nevada's Mount Charleston, moved with his wife to 10 acres outside Kanab shortly after the monument was created. He liked riding horses and motorbikes, and he believed that the monument unfairly restricted motorized use and gave the federal government undue influence over the region's land base.

Crippled by a shrinking membership and funding base, People for the USA disbanded in 2000. Noel, however, got elected to the Utah Legislature in 2002, and Habbeshaw won a seat on the Kane County Commission the same year. The two former federal employees used their political power to oppose the feds' road closures and environmentalists' buyouts of grazing permits in the monument.

Habbeshaw risked federal prosecution in August 2003, when he and the county sheriff personally removed 31 closure signs from backcountry roads and trails in the monument. The county officials selected routes they considered to be county highways under RS 2477. "We were absolute heroes to everybody then," says Habbeshaw. "The ranchers were patting us on the back. All the ATVers and the jeep club could go wherever they wanted."
Environmentalists near and far viewed them as outlaws. President George W. Bush's Department of the Interior failed to take action, so in 2005, when the county began putting its own signs inside the monument, opening 63 new routes to motorized travel, The Wilderness Society and SUWA intervened to sue the county for ignoring federal law. The county responded by suing the BLM, claiming that it -- and not the federal government -- had the right to regulate travel where it had RS 2477 claims.

Kane County has claimed rights to more than 60 roads in all. That includes the county's most recent roads lawsuit, filed last October, which seeks control of 49 roads; one is the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, an unpaved road that stretches through the monument to hiking trailheads and an 1880 Mormon landmark where pioneers blasted a route 1,200 feet down a cliff to a river passage now submerged by Lake Powell.

Over the years, federal judges have issued rulings that favor both sides. In September 2009, a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Kane County still hadn't proved any valid road rights and that its actions that violated the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says that federal law trumps any conflicting state, county or local law. The court reviewed that decision in an en banc hearing (gathering all of the circuit's judges) and ruled on Jan. 11 that environmentalists have no standing to file that lawsuit. That's a victory for the county, effectively putting the pressure squarely on the feds to represent the pro-regulation viewpoint without help from environmentalists. Meanwhile, at the end of last summer, the Obama administration's lawyers ceded to Kane County the rights to five of the least controversial contested roads (totaling 75 miles) -- the first victory by any Utah county involved in the RS 2477 battles, Habbeshaw says.

Habbeshaw and Noel accuse environmentalists of deliberately dragging out the court cases to wear down local resistance. The county needs to push all of its potential road claims now, rather than later, Habbeshaw says, because witnesses to historical use are getting old and a statute of limitations might prevent later claims. But it's equally clear that the court fights have consumed the local politicians. They've pursued an aggressive strategy even though the monument allows motorized travel on more than 600 miles of roads, and even as other rural counties have sought more practical alternatives, sometimes compromising with the BLM for limited motorized rights.

Kane County officials have not only refused to compromise, they've exacerbated the issue by ceasing to maintain many of the contested roads. As a result, some paved roads and dirt two-tracks that are important to ranchers, hikers and other recreational users have fallen into disrepair and become dangerous.

"That's one of the discrepancies between (Habbeshaw's) opinion and mine," says Ray Wells of the local ATV club. "They're punishing the local community by not maintaining these roads, and I don't think the federal government gives a rat. His passion for what he wants is good. As far as bringing the two sides together and having any successes, it's not happening." (The Obama administration's recent surrender of five roads opens a way for the county to resume maintenance on those roads without the county having to back down.)

Ted Wilson, a former SUWA board member and now a senior environmental adviser to Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, frames the legal battle in similar terms: "Part of it is the personal persuasion and passion of both Mike Noel and Mark Habbeshaw."

Noel, who was among the motorized masses on the Paria Canyon protest ride, makes no apologies: "We have absolutely gone down the road we needed to go." Habbeshaw, who gave an encouraging speech before the protest but didn't drive in the canyon, agrees that the roads cases are a proxy for the general local opposition to the monument and the ongoing battle over wilderness in southern Utah. "New West, Old West, that's what this is about," he says. "Are we going to eventually lose the Old West, the traditions and the culture, (and) shift towards a New West and urban life? You bet we are. But why rush to it?"

When I meet Sky Chaney at his home in the relatively posh Kanab Creek Ranchos subdivision, in piñon-juniper foothills not far from downtown, he is quick to point out that he owns and rides an ATV and four-wheel-drive vehicles. "We spend a lot of time out on the dirt," Chaney says.

But locals have a nickname for people like Chaney: a "move-in." He represents a demographic trend: Retirees from elsewhere are increasingly settling here.

Chaney is a retired psychologist and part-time college professor from Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco. He and his wife, Bobbi, bought a house here in 2005. As they've put down roots, they've become active in community theater as writers, producers and performers; one recent musical comedy involved Internet dating. Obama posters and wilderness images are displayed in their house.

Their position on the roads issue becomes clearer when I hear one of their musical compositions, a political parody performed by the Tumbleweedz (the Chaneys and two other couples). They can be seen on YouTube, performing "Highway Robbery" in cowboy hats with an exaggerated country twang:

"We're glad to have our monument, of Bill Clinton we are proud ...

He saved our precious landscape from the motor madness crowd ...

So let's take those ATVs and put them on a pile ...

Let's torch them with a match and burn them with a smile."

There's another reason Chaney is opposed to the Sagebrush Rebels. After a few years here, he noticed his property taxes skyrocketing. He formed the Taxpayers Association of Kane County to explore the causes, focusing on the roads claims, the resulting pricey lawsuits and their costs to residents.

"For many people, over the last four years, their property taxes have about doubled, and I realized there had to be something wrong," Chaney says. Through the Taxpayers Association, which has a 450-person mailing list, Chaney and others have pressed the county government for accountability. The group filed an open-records request in early 2010, seeking to review county documents that would reveal the county's legal expenses and any connections with the property-tax hikes. The county government resisted the request and demanded that the group pay $27,000 to cover the cost of compiling the information. A Brigham Young University journalism professor called the sum "outrageous" in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Ultimately, the county government retracted its demand for reimbursement and turned over 60 pages of budget spreadsheets. Chaney says the numbers are difficult to decipher, but he estimates that the county has spent at least $1 million on legal expenses for the roads cases. He believes the actual total could be double or triple that amount, considering related costs, such as computer equipment, staff overtime and contract labor for surveying and mapping. He acknowledges that there is more behind the tax hikes than just the lawsuits: Some resulted from a local economic boom and bust in the 2000s. (The county government hired a bunch of new employees and launched construction projects just as the bottom fell out.)

Habbeshaw insists there's "no correlation" between lawsuit expenses and the property-tax hikes. He estimates the county spent roughly $60,000 to $100,000 a year on legal expenses up until 2009, a small fraction of the county's budget, which has ranged between $6 million and $8 million in recent years.

The lawsuit costs have also been shared by the Utah state government and taxpayers statewide. Over the past decade, the Legislature has allocated roughly $13 million to support efforts to assert counties' rights over backcountry roads, ranging from mapping to jumping into the lawsuits, according to the Governor's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office. Noel , who is still in the Legislature, has also wrangled a way to force all Utah drivers to share the costs of the legal battle. In 2009, he sponsored legislation that has allowed counties to divert one-third of the money they get from statewide gasoline taxes to cover roads litigation or secure titles to roads. By tapping its share of that tax revenue stream, Kane County can now spend more than $300,000 each year on lawsuits without any impact on county tax rates.

The Taxpayers Association's inquiries aren't about county finances, Habbeshaw says. He points to Chaney's songs and his appearance in a photo of "activists" on the SUWA website as proof that the association is a front. "It's more about providing a shell cover for his environmental activism than really an interest in taxes," Habbeshaw says.

"The county (government) doesn't want local residents and taxpayers to really know how much the actual cost is," Chaney responds, "because there will be more people thinking that it hasn't been worth it. I know people who are (off-road drivers) and longtime residents of this area who are in favor of the county owning these roads through the RS 2477 process but are dead against (the county) spending all this money on this."

Ray Wells is proof of that: "My opinion is we're just throwing that money away. The only people coming out of it ahead is the attorneys."

Restaurant-owner Houston, the former county commissioner, thinks that many of the back roads should be managed by the county, but regrets that the whole legal war was started. Now, he says, it's too late to back off. Whenever he inquires about the cost of the lawsuits, he says, "I always get the answer that it's not directly costing us money, but obviously it's got to be costing us something."

Susan Hand, tanned and fit from years of boating on rivers and hiking in canyons, moved to Kanab in 1994 to open Willow Canyon Outdoor, an outdoor gear shop. Without the monument, she says, her business might not have succeeded.

Hand kept a low profile at first. "We were very cognizant of the fact that we were outsiders, and we tried to just live quietly," She says one afternoon as we sit on the patio behind her shop. "We just sort of wanted to blend in."

Hand's attitude changed when some school-board members began talking about using schoolchildren -- including her daughter -- to stage a protest against the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante. Since then, she has become a vocal supporter of the monument and other environmental causes; she helped organize a small group of counter-protesters that observed the Paria Canyon ride last year.

"There's a pretty strong alternative community (here)," Hand says, and its members have refused to sit back when the conservative majority's opinions spilled over into social policies. In 2006, the Kanab City Council passed the Natural Family Resolution, which endorsed "a local culture that upholds the marriage of a man to a woman, and a woman to a man, as ordained of God." It called for households to have a "full quiver of children" and said, "We envision young women growing into wives, homemakers, and mothers; and ... young men growing into husbands, home-builders, and fathers."

The resolution was drafted by the Sutherland Institute, a Salt Lake City think tank that promotes traditional values, and the language aligned closely with a 1995 statement by the Mormon Church. The institute circulated the resolution to every town in Utah; Kanab was the only one that acted on it. "I felt it was demeaning and hurtful," Hand says.

But if the resolution was designed to accentuate lines between old and new, straight and gay, Mormon and others, it had the opposite effect. Even some members of the Mormon Church, such as Houston, who say they agree with its principles, now question why the city council took on the issue. Most of the locals whom I asked about the resolution -- which is technically still on the books -- look back on it as an embarrassing over-reaction to all the changes in the region. "It's not as easy as 'them' and 'us,' " says Hand, who tries to maintain a nuanced demeanor -- fiery, but civil and amused -- when culture clashes flare up.

After the town built a new public swimming pool in 2008, the city council imposed a bikini ban in the name of decency. National media mocked the policy and the council quickly reversed its decision. Hand used the occasion to launch bikini sales in her store. "It's actually really entertaining living here," she says.

Despite its lively alternative community, in some ways Kane County's divisions appear to be deepening. "Kanab is more or less a microcosm of what is happening on a national scale," Hand muses. "There's a lot of anti-government sentiment, a lot of hostility, a lot of verbal abuse between groups that think differently. It's useful to be respectful and understand each other ...  I think that part has deteriorated in the time that I've lived here."

Still, the community is gradually changing in a New West direction. The Best Friends Animal Society is a good example. Early on, the group formed partnerships with ranchers who share an animal-welfare ethic. In the lean '90s, when the group struggled to pay its bills and even buy pet food, local businesses extended lines of credit. One supermarket began making special produce orders and stocked tofu to serve the founders; Mejia even gave vegetarian cooking lessons at the grocery store. Restaurants including Trail's End now feed tables of Best Friends volunteers. Local lodging is very pet-friendly to accommodate the group's sleepover program, which sends dogs, cats and potbellied pigs into town to spend a night with visitors.

Yet some locals still see the group the way Shawna Cox does. A leader of UT/AZ Patriots, Cox warns that Best Friends is just "a cult." She also believes that the monument regulations and other federal lands policies are secretly controlled by the government of China.

In the summer evenings, the cedar gnats come out and pester anyone bold enough to tempt them. Sitting in a chair on his front lawn, Jim Matson appears undisturbed. After many years here, he has learned to adapt and endure.

Matson used to run a nearby timber mill, which closed in the mid-'90s. This past year, he worked as the local point person for the development of the hyper-ritzy Amangiri resort, near Lake Powell, which opened in October 2009. The five-star hotel -- part of the worldwide Aman Resorts chain -- is tucked away on 600 acres. It's architecturally designed to blend in with the desert and surrounding sandstone cliffs, and "basic" suites -- with glass walls, private courtyards and even heated floors and fireplaces -- start at $850 a night. Matson says Amangiri has already provided a nearly 5 percent bump to Kane County's tax base.

atson's next challenge starts this month, when he will be one of two new Kane County commissioners. Habbeshaw and another hard-line colleague are stepping down. On paper, Matson agrees with many of the positions held by Habbeshaw and Noel: He shares the heartburn over the monument, and he believes the lawsuits are the only way that Kane County will ever settle its differences with the BLM. (There are three seats on the commission, and the other new commissioner, Dirk Clayson, also supports the litigation.) But Matson also thinks the county commissioners have been "distracted." He says he plans to examine budgets and expenses to ensure that county services have not been neglected because of the litigation.

As far as launching more lawsuits, Matson says, "Anybody that wants to take a poke at the feds, have at it. I'm not interested in doing it just as Sunday sport."

Some locals hope that Matson will restore a sense of moderation. Similar optimism greeted a recent changing of the guard on the Kanab City Council. Both levels of local government still slant hard right, recently supporting proposals to develop a coal gasification plant within city limits and a coal mine about 40 miles away. But, "I think we have elected some more moderate people who are less paternalistic," says Hand. "The thing that makes me feel hopeful about our future as a community is that these are people who will engage in dialogue and try and listen to everybody and not represent a particular faction to an extreme."

The Obama administration appears at least somewhat open to negotiation, even as Kane County seems determined to stick to its guns. The BLM didn't arrest any of the motorized protesters who openly rebelled against the closure of Paria Canyon. And some other Utah counties are trying to work with the feds on less combative -- and less expensive -- ways to resolve road claims and public-lands management issues. Last summer, the Interior Department and Utah state government announced a pilot project in neighboring Iron County. It will approve "recordable disclaimers of interest" on roads where that county claims ownership and the federal government would be willing to basically relinquish its rights because there is no controversy over use. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar hailed the agreement as "a model for consensus-building and problem-solving," and officials said Iron County was selected because it's less hostile to the federal government than some other counties, basically pointing a finger at Kane.

Last March, Obama signed a compromise land conservation law negotiated by stakeholders in Washington County (another neighbor), designating 256,000 acres of wilderness and allowing the sale of thousands of federal acres around the city of St. George.

Yet the Sagebrush Rebellion continues to smolder -- apparently hotter than it's been in a while. In November, Utah voters overwhelmingly elected an avowed rebel, Mike Lee -- an attorney who represented Kane County in the full 10th Circuit Court hearing on the key RS 2477 case -- as their new U.S. senator. Lee replaces a somewhat moderate Republican, Bob Bennett, who supported locally negotiated wilderness deals. The incoming senator says he won't support any deals unless the conservative, Republican-dominated Legislature approves them -- a position that's also held by Mike Noel.

Noel has been front and center at several motorized protests around the state Capitol in 2009 and 2010, led by Take Back Utah, the latest group to channel the Sagebrush Rebellion. It rallies Tea Party supporters and voices the familiar demands for less regulation on federal lands. Noel remains a bulwark for his rural, archconservative constituency. He supports a new state law that seeks to enable Utah to seize federal lands through eminent domain, and devotes $3 million to defend the effort in court. Some legal scholars say that law stands on shaky legal ground and even Noel says "it doesn't have that good of a chance to prevail" in the courts.

Noel's participation in the governor's Balanced Resource Council, chaired by Ted Wilson, might provide an arena for some compromise, or at least conversation. The council weighs in on public-lands and natural-resources issues, and helped negotiate the Iron County pilot project. Last August -- after a Salt Lake Tribune editorial skewered Noel for "bitter, nonsensical ranting (that) does nothing but prolong the old and intractable debate" -- Wilson came to Noel's defense, saying: "Mike Noel may have shown his anger, but at times he has a point."

"I try my very best when I'm in the Resource Council to say, 'OK, is there an opportunity here to compromise on some of these issues?' and when I can I will," Noel says. "I will even talk to SUWA. I'm going to tell them what I think ... but I will at least listen to people."

It's a promising notion. In a 2008 report on ATV use, Utah State University researchers surveyed about 1,400 ATV drivers in Utah by mail and found they're mostly white, middle-aged, longtime Utah residents, with household incomes above $50,000, politically conservative, and -- from their perspective -- respectful of the environment. Half agreed with the statement that "Humans are severely abusing the environment." Two-thirds agreed with "Plants and animals have as much right as humans to exist." Eight hundred and fourteen of those who received the survey forms did not respond, so the results might be skewed toward more responsible ATV drivers. Still, there appears to be some opportunity for common ground.

"We just need to figure out what we can do cooperatively (with federal agencies), and then agree to disagree amicably, if and when there's a difference of opinion on how to do this stuff," Matson says. "There's much more to work on and I think that agreements can be made (rather) than to spend all of our time with these distractions. And, sometimes, when these things get to be ideologically based, they're huge distractions."

Joshua Zaffos is a freelance writer based in Fort Collins, Colo.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.

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