Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s will issue recommendations this week for large national monuments that will reverberate across Utah, where residents remain divided over the new Bears Ears and the 21-year-old Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
Zinke has signaled he will urge major reductions to the two Utah monuments, which state and county leaders say strangle local economies and undermine rural communities.
Commissioners from Garfield County, which hosts the Grand Staircase’s northern half, have declared “a state of emergency,” contending the monument imperiled the county’s future. Yet numerous businesses are flourishing in Escalante and Boulder, catering to adventuresome visitors coming to explore the region’s slot canyons and mesas.
Pro-monument advocates argue landscapes protected by presidential decree under the 1906 Antiquities Act can be major economic drivers, while local leaders say they thwart economic development by curtailing extraction of publicly owned natural resources. Both sides point to the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase to buttress their cases.
“There is no way both these things could be true. It could not be a great boon to the economy at the same time it killed the economy,” said Paul Jakus, a Utah State University economics professor who has completed a study tackling the question. Co-written with colleague Sherzod Akhundjanov, Jakus’s study, which is under review by the journal Land Economics, concludes that landscape-scale monuments are “neither a boon nor a bane.”
The USU economists compared changes in per-capita income for Garfield and Kane with changes in Utah’s other counties and four bordering counties in Arizona. They found incomes rose in step with comparable counties, although they remain lower than the state as a whole. They applied their methodology to three other big Clinton-era monuments — Canyons of the Ancients, Carrizo Plain and Upper Missouri River Breaks — and came up with similar results.
Monument foes say such designations promote low-wage tourism jobs at the expense of high-paying extraction jobs.
Indeed, the Grand Staircase designation precluded the development of promising coal leases on the Kaiparowits Plateau, but that lost opportunity was offset by the dozens of businesses established in the towns rimming the monument to serve visitors and migrants coming to enjoy the region’s beauty, said Jakus, who heads USU’s Center for Society, Economics and the Environment.
The USU study also concluded the Staircase designation had minimal impact on grazing, despite ranchers’ complaints that monument rules are putting them out of business. Declines in stocking levels, it found, were likely the result of the cyclical nature of the cattle industry, which happened to peak the year the monument was designated, and persistent drought, which has reduced available forage.
Jakus pursued his study in response to the 120-day monument review President Donald Trump announced April 24 at the urging of Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch. The review targets 27 large monuments designated since 1996, most of them in the desert Southwest. Zinke, who has visited just eight of the monuments as part of his review, is to forward recommendations for adjusting, eliminating or preserving the monuments by Thursday.
The secretary has already announced he will recommend leaving five monuments intact: Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant; Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks; Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients; Idaho’s Craters of the Moon; Washington’s Hanford Reach; and California’s Sand to Snow.
But Zinke has said the two Utah monuments were designated without adequate consultation with local officials and are too big to be reconciled with the Antiquities Act’s requirement that monuments be the “smallest area compatible with the the proper care” of the resources to be protected. However, it remains unclear whether he will recommend shrinking monuments through executive action, which many legal scholars say would be illegal, or through congressional action.
Either way, Garfield County business owners have implored Zinke to leave the Staircase monument as it is and are preparing to resist any action against it.
“I lie awake at night asking this question, what would it look like?” asked Boulder restaurateur Blake Spalding, who co-founded Hell‘s Backbone Grill, now regarded as one of Utah’s finest restaurants. Coupled with the nearby Boulder Mountain Lodge, the restaurant supports a payroll exceeding $1 million and a 6.5-acre organic farm.
”We have a wonderfully diverse community that agrees by in large that this wilderness needs to be protected,” Spalding said. “For us, it’s not about the money. We came here out of abundance of love for the land and wish to bring those who come to visit some comfort and happiness.”
By her account, the region is seeing an upswing in new hiring driven by tourism.
“Without the monument, our business wouldn’t exist,” said the former Grand Canyon river cook. ”This [Interior Department] review has a negative impact on the community. It has opened old fights and old wounds.”
But Garfield’s elected leaders tell a different story, describing ranching and logging jobs disappearing, energy-extraction jobs failing to materialize and monument rules making motorized travel and commercial activity overly complicated or impossible.
The 1996 designation “has had a negative impact on the prosperity, development, economy, custom, culture, heritage, educational opportunities, health, and well-being of local communities,” and pushed Escalante High School enrollment down 44 percent, according to resolutions passed by the Utah Legislature and the Kane and Garfield county commissions, as they called for the Grand Staircase monument to be shrunk.
Garfield Commissioner Leland Pollock said he trusts Zinke to make the right call.
“I will support him,” Pollock said, “no matter what he recommends.”