Like it or not, Utah’s controversial monument is here to stay

  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 towns around the 1.7 million acre-monument, I found deep-seated anger and mistrust. One county commissioner told me President Clinton cynically designated the monument to win green votes in the 1996 presidential election. A town official from Kanab jabbed at me with a pointed finger: "You’re not one of them damn environmentalists, are you?" before granting an interview. There was plenty of talk of getting rid of the monument, through lawsuits or legislation.

But not everyone was confrontational. After venting about "Bill Clinton’s damn 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 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.

Fast forward to 2003: The monument and what it stands for have 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 through increasing its staff and building new visitor facilities.

The monument has also fortified 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 more profitably off into the sunset. This has happened because 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 have been brokered by Bill Hedden, a Castle Valley, Utah, resident who works for the Grand Canyon Trust. The deals have been good for the land and good for the people.

Yet Old West resentments die harder than the Old West itself.

The election of George W. Bush and swing back to Republican power have allowed 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 highly capable manager of the monument; her sin was that she had asked ranchers to take their cattle off the monument a few weeks earlier than scheduled because of a severe drought. And now, the alliance has targeted the grazing retirement program in the name of defending the "custom and culture" of Escalante country, even verbally attacking the ranchers who have participated.

So far, their efforts have cowed the BLM into delaying approval of several grazing deals under the guise of that old bureaucratic favorite: We need more time to study the issue. This swing back and forth from the New West to Old West reads like a story from the Old Testament: Clinton used the monument designation as a blunt political tool to bolster his environmental credentials, so it’s only fair that angry locals use an all-too-willing Bush administration to strike back. Right?

Wrong. Stories like this make for good copy 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. Sitting in the Burr Trail Café in Boulder, Utah, recently, two old-timers summed up both no-compromise environmentalists and diehard monument critics this way: "those radicals."

Just as environmentalists must adjust to the reality that recreating a pre-Columbus "virgin" wilderness is not possible in the 21st century, so must Old West defenders recognize the futility of trying to return southern Utah to the "good old days" of extractive industrial development and ecologically destructive ranching.

The West has changed, and now southern Utahns and the BLM must stand up to the short-sighted bullies who refuse to acknowledge it. If they don’t, the monumental wounds will never heal, and everyone will lose out.

Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is the executive director of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado([email protected]).

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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