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Is southern Utah town being stifled by the feds — or by residents’ refusal to roll with new industries?

First Published      Last Updated Feb 06 2017 09:26 pm

Is the monument a death knell or economic boon?

The question continues to divide Grand Staircase country.

Escalante • Dave and Erin Treanor's new business venture in this remote Utah town came at the crossroads of timing and location.

Transplants to Garfield County 11 years ago, they gravitated to Wide Hollow Reservoir to pursue their passion for paddling.

More often than not, they didn't spend much time on the water as campers from adjacent Escalante Petrified Forest State Park asked to borrow their kayaks and paddleboards.

So when Dave was laid off last year from Turn-About Ranch, inspiration struck. This spring, the Treanors, who have two young children, expanded their new horse-trail-riding business to rent watercraft at the reservoir. Both operations are flourishing, exceeding the couple's expectations.

The Treanors are a little bit of old Escalante (the horses) and a little bit of new Escalante (the paddleboards). But while they've worked out the dichotomy, their neighbors haven't.

The clash became apparent June 22 when the Garfield County Commission declared a state of emergency. The proclamation portrays Escalante, a town of 850, as a community fading away under the weight of federal land policies that put preservation ahead of extraction.

The Treanors figured they were having a banner year.

"It's an exciting time. We're dying? Really? That's a bummer," said Dave Treanor, a candidate for Town Council in a race in which three incumbents face re-election.

"Why send that message just when we are coming back? Most people here are really optimistic."

Treanor, owner of the guiding service called Rising DT Ranch, is among several Escalante business leaders frustrated with the commission's declaration. They believe the three-page resolution, which calls on federal land agencies to align their management with the county's priorities, exhibits a lack of vision for the future and could wind up harming Escalante's economic prospects by discouraging investment.

'It's a lie' • The emergency declaration claims the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which operates the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and the U.S. Forest Service are to blame for the county's economic malaise because policies have "eliminated" multiple use.

Collapsing school enrollment in Escalante — down 67 percent in the town's middle and high school since President Bill Clinton's 1996 monument designation — is the main exhibit in the commissioners' case that Garfield's communities are withering.

In a speech before the San Juan County Commission last week, Town Council member Greg Allen personified the old guard — those who believe Clinton's monument permanently stunted their community. He urged the San Juan County Commission to fight the proposed designation of a national monument around Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa. Allen said claims that the Staircase monument spurs economic growth are distortions perpetrated by those developing tourism operations at the expense of traditional industries.

"There's no other way to say it. It's a lie," said Allen, an Escalante schoolteacher and LDS bishop whose family is involved with logging and ranching. "We are a constricting town. We are going down. I have no idea how we are going to survive."

Mormon settlers first platted the town 130 years ago on a gently sloping bluff above the Escalante River.

Relics of fruit orchards cluster behind homes and alfalfa fields spread from the river, whose banks are choked with invasive Russian olive and tamarisk among native cottonwoods and willow.

This bucolic valley is surrounded by scenic public lands that are simultaneously Escalante's chief asset and biggest source of rancor.

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