How deep is your love?

 

“I love the land, and it’s different from an environmentalist’s love. We have a deep, abiding love; they have a weekend love affair. Their love is intense and passionate, but it’s not an abiding love. That kind of love comes from making a living off the land.”

When Garfield County, Utah, Commissioner Louise Liston said this to me in 1996, I was pretty sure she’d pegged me as one of those one-night-stand environmentalists. We were discussing the new 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that President Bill Clinton had created a few months earlier. It was an exhilarating moment for the West’s conservation community, but Liston and most of the other locals I spoke to in the tiny town of Escalante —some of them direct descendants of the Mormon pioneers who settled southern Utah’s canyon country a century ago — hated it.

They resented what they called a government “land grab” — even though the monument was already federally owned — partly because it killed a planned coal mine with good-paying jobs. They feared environmentalists would take away their grazing rights. Perhaps most of all, they hated that the monument would attract outsiders with different values, turning their world upside down.

Over the ensuing 19 years, High Country News has periodically revisited Escalante country to see how the post-monument drama is unfolding. Parts of the plot have played out predictably: Visitors have increased dramatically, some newcomers have moved into town, and there has been friction over cattle grazing and motorized recreation.

But there have been a few twists. One was the formation more than five years ago of a local watershed group that explicitly seeks to bridge the divide between old-timers and newcomers through restoration projects. When the writer of our cover story, Scott Carrier, interviewed the non-Mormon leaders of the Escalante River Watershed Partnership, he found that they are still struggling to get most Mormon ranchers to participate in their practical river-restoration efforts, which include removing invasive species such as Russian olive. Carrier’s thesis — that the distrust between ranchers and conservationists exists because they have “entirely different cosmologies, or answers to the questions of where we come from, why we are here, and where we are going” — is likely to resonate with many who have lived in the West’s small rural communities. But his reporting also reveals that, like the early Mormon settlers, some of the so-called “outsiders” have dug in for the long haul, working the land in new ways to make a living. Year by year, project by project, they are developing a deep abiding love that could lead to a new relationship with the old-timers and the magnificent landscape they both inhabit. Sometimes we forget that even the old-timers’ families were newcomers once.

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