Op-ed: Escalante is on the rise, and Grand Staircase is driving it

First Published      Last Updated Mar 09 2017 09:50 pm

As president of the Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce I would like to respond to the statements that the town of Escalante is dying because of the creation of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. ("Is southern Utah town being stifled by the fed — or by residents' refusal to roll with new industries?," August 16.)

I don't believe the town of Escalante is being stifled at all. To the contrary, the monument is a major reason why our town is thriving. All the businesses in Escalante are working hard to employ people, provide livable wages and expand.

Escalante's population is 850 people, with 49 businesses that are members of the Chamber of Commerce. Most of our businesses are engaged in recreation and tourism. When I asked our board members if they were having a good year, each replied it is a "record year."

Business has never been better. My business, Escalante Outfitters, is employing more people with a higher payroll than ever before. Our sales are at record levels, and we are expanding by building new facilities to accommodate this demand.

There are many other examples of expansion in the town of Escalante. During the last five years, a new medical clinic has opened with pharmacy and dental services. We are all proud of the new hardware store and home center. Structures along Main Street are being renovated and are open for business. New construction is prevalent, and there is difficulty getting contractors (i.e. plumbers, electricians, roofers, etc.) because of the number of new and renovated projects.

Why are we witnessing this surge in activity?

The Grand Staircase Escalante is being discovered. The monument has put Escalante on the map as a tourist destination and is attracting entrepreneurs and residents who want to live near protected lands with beautiful scenery and clean water and air. The monument is the city's biggest asset and is not the source of its problems.

We do face challenges, however. The city needs year-round employment and affordable housing for employees. I would like our unemployment stats to improve. It is inaccurate to assert that the designation of the monument is responsible for the demise of the timber industry and coal production. Timber was never harvested on the monument and cannot be held responsible for the decline of this industry. There are other germane influences that are the core problem. Coal prices in the U.S. have declined from $140 per ton in 2008 to $40 per ton in 2015. It doesn't matter how deep the seams are because the prices will dictate production. Coal is not the energy source of the future.

I believe our town, Escalante, has a bright future. The investments and risks that some of us have made will pay dividends because we believe in this town's future. We need a more diversified economy. If we can come together as a town and utilize the National Monument as a resource, our future is indeed bright. Now is the time for our city government and its citizens to form an economic development plan that will define our future without the future defining our town.

Dennis Waggoner is owner of Escalante Outfitters and president of the Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce.