Monumental Decision, Part 1: Utah
The fates of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante hang in the balance. So do those of nearby communities and the people whose livelihoods are inextricably tied to Southern Utah's outdoor recreation economy. This is their story.
At the time of publication, nearly 70,000 people from across the country had filed public comments with the Interior Department in response to President Trump’s executive order to review national monuments.
For Outdoor Industry Association, it is an issue not only about the land, itself, and the people who visit and recreate on it but also about those whose livelihoods depend on public lands.
In the 147 days since Utah’s Bears Ears was designated a national monument, nearby communities have already seen an uptick in visitors. With them comes an immediate and significant economic boost, not only for obvious benefactors such as those in the outdoor recreation industry—hiking, biking, rafting and fishing guides, outfitters and retailers—but also for restauranteurs and lodging operators. And it stands to be more than a short–term or seasonal boost, as people begin coming to the area not only as visitors but as residents who desire proximity to the recreation opportunities. As evidenced by nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante—which was designated by President Clinton more than 20 years ago—national monuments have a way of attracting large and small businesses, which means more work for building tradespeople (local plumbers, electricians, carpenters), entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers and more.
But now Bears Ears and Grand Staircase in Utah, as well as Canyons of the Ancients in the Four Corners region of Colorado, are among 27 national monuments currently under review by the Trump administration. Local business owners, educators and advocacy groups are concerned that if these areas lose their monument status, not only will local economies take an irreparable hit, but the landscape will be destroyed for future generations.
“The land is going to be the main loser,” says Josh Ewing, executive director for Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit group in Bluff, Utah, whose mission is to protect and help maintain public lands in San Juan County, including Bears Ears National Monument.
“Shrinking or rescinding the monument opens up the area for energy development,” Ewing says. “Un-protecting the area very well could lead to significant industrialization. The longer-term concern is the issue we’re currently experiencing with heavy visitation. Visitation is quadrupling, and if the monument is undone, we’re going back to the status quo with no resources.”
Ewing believes that while most locals care about protecting Bears Ears National Monument, its designation in 2016 was ill-received by some residents and politicians simply because it was President Obama who issued it.
“It’s an issue of who protected it,” he says. “If congress had protected the same area, the reception may have been completely different.” Ewing suggests that even though most people care about and wanted to see the area protected, many expected a quid pro quo—”a pound of flesh,” said Ewing—in the form of concessions of land outside of the monument in exchange for its protection. With the monument designation, they didn’t get any of those concessions. “What’s hard for me is that the landscape ends up being the collateral damage for the political ideology,” says Ewing.
“What’s hard for me is that the landscape ends up being the collateral damage for the political ideology.” —Josh Ewing, executive director, Friends of Cedar Mesa.
Chris Giangreco is the interim executive director at the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education in Monticello, Utah, near both Bears Ears and Canyons of the Ancients. He doesn’t want to delve into the politics surrounding the monuments, but as an avid backcountry enthusiast and educator, hopes to see them remain available and protected for exploration and discovery.
“We don’t have a stand on the monument as a designation. We have seen an increase in the number of people visiting this area in the past several months and an increase in people asking about Bears Ears. Monument designation or not, this area of the country is someplace that people have found out about. We are trying to do the best we can as stewards and community members to educate them on what this area really is and how to preserve it in the best way possible,” Giangreco says.
One reason Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante are in particular jeopardy following the Department of the Interior’s review is that they cover vast areas of land. Grand Staircase covers 1.7 million acres and Bears Ears more than 1.3 million (as opposed to Canyons of the Ancients, designated in 2000 at 175,000 acres). The boundaries for these monuments were not drawn lightly, as the areas are rich with minerals such as oil, gas and uranium but also teeming with, recreation opportunities (see map, below), paleontological and archaeological artifacts—ruins, fossils, gravesites and precious remnants of the ancestral Puebloans, some of America’s oldest known inhabitants dating back to the 12th century.
“This was such a rich cultural homeland to the Ancestral Puebloans,” Giangreco says. “I can’t speak to how they drew the monument lines. We just know there are tons of sites all over the area.”
Grand Staircase-Escalante, also abounding in paleontological gems, has seen its surrounding communities blossom following its designation as a national monument in 1996.
“How The West Was Reinvented,” Washington Monthly, January 2014
“We’ve seen exponential growth both in our shop and in our community,” says Nathan Waggoner, owner of Escalante Outfitters, a successful retail store; restaurant; fly fishing, hiking and historical guide service in Escalante, Utah. “Every year we try to expand our business and pay our employees more so they have competitive wages. These communities are at a cusp. I’ve seen this nice growth from the inside out where more and more families are invested in the outdoor industry. We’re getting this interesting population: computer-based, young entrepreneurs that want to live near public lands and can do their jobs here, plumbers and electricians involved in infrastructure—there are two new lodges going in. We’re beginning to flourish.”
The Outfitters’ cabins are booked year-round, and its entire operation has doubled since Waggoner and his family took over 12 years ago. Business has always centered around visitors seeking outdoor adventure in the monument.
“One of our incredible selling points is the amount of places to discover in the monument,” Waggoner says. “It has a lifetime worth of hiking and exploration. We’ve had incredible paleontological finds on the monument. We take people out to show them the science, research and restoration. We don’t want to see that go away.”
If the Grand Staircase loses its monument designation or is reduced in size, Waggoner has no doubt that his business and the landscape will face serious risk of crumbling … possibly the pulse of the entire community along with it.
“To reduce the size of the monument is to open it to extractive industries,” says Waggoner. “If it’s turned back over to [Bureau of Land Management], those extractive industries move in and we lose access. [Access is] what makes people come back—the vastness of it … the expanse of places to see and explore. As it is with this national monument review, it’s Grand Staircase and Bears Ears that are really on the chopping block. If people have emotional stakes or investments in these places, they need to share their thoughts during this narrow comment period.”