A southern Utah county that fought monument designations is now eager to make money off them

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) A crow flies over Sippapu Bridge in Natural Bridges Natural Monument in San Juan County. Long opposed to national monument designations, county officials are now celebrating the natural wonders monuments protect in a new branding campaign titled "Make It Monumental," unveiled this month in the hopes of boosting economic development.

After years of complaining about national monuments within its borders, southeastern Utah’s San Juan County is now highlighting them in a new branding effort to boost economic development in this historically overlooked corner of the state.

County officials last week unveiled a new campaign featuring the tag line “Make It Monumental,” wordplay that references Bears Ears National Monument and Monument Valley, in hope of promoting the region as a less-crowded entry point to Utah’s famous and increasingly crowded redrock country.

This rebrand is “the next logical step” to capitalize on heightened interest in the region famous for stunning scenery, according to Natalie Randall, director of San Juan County’s economic development and visitor services.

“San Juan County got lost in the mix of everyone else’s information,” Randall said in a news release sent by an outside publicist. “We want to stand out and have visitors recognize us as the reliable source of information for enjoying the natural wonders of the county.”

Natural wonders such as Recapture Canyon and Comb Ridge, however, have been sore points for many San Juan residents and leaders who object to the federal government’s efforts to protect them at the expense of motorized access and “multiple use.”

The rebrand campaign coincides with the Bureau of Land Management’s release of draft management plans for Bears Ears National Monument’s two units, carved out of the original monument in President Donald Trump’s controversial reduction order.

San Juan is home to three other national monuments: Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge and Hovenweep, as well as Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and parts of Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

The economic development agency’s website emphasizes the county’s rugged natural beauty, including a lead image showing Valley of the Gods shot at sunrise from Cedar Mesa, lands that Trump removed from Bears Ears. Elements highlight dark skies, winter recreation, mountain biking, archaeology and, above all, scenery. The “monumental” tag appears nowhere on the site, which was updated as part of the rebrand.

Observers noted the irony of county leaders promoting monuments as an economic driver while also imploring the federal government to exempt Utah from the Antiquities Act, the law used to establish monuments in the county. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, sponsored a bill that would accomplish this, dubbed Protect Utah’s Rural Economy, or PURE, suggesting that monument designations impeded economic development.

“All they want is to make money. It’s a profit thing. It’s not because they love monuments,” said Bluff hiking guide Vaughn Hadenfeldt, who led then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell around Bears Ears in 2016, when she toured the area for a possible monument designation.

He worries that unmanaged recreation will damage the fragile lands and artifacts around Cedar Mesa, and he questions the wisdom of inviting more tourism in light of the visitor onslaught spurred in part by Utah’s successful campaign promoting its five national parks.

“We are seeing a big increase in visitation without the appropriate resources to take care of it. We don’t even have the signs up there yet,” said Hadenfeldt, who is chairman of the pro-monument Friends of Cedar Mesa. “Do we want to turn it into the same problems the Mighty Five created? We need education and more personnel. I’m not seeing that happening yet.”

Using private money, his group is opening a visitor education center in a historic bar in Bluff, the San Juan town most geared toward tourism and whose residents largely favored the Bears Ears designation.

San Juan’s branding news release makes no mention of the region’s artifacts, cliff dwellings and village sites left by ancient American Indians, offering the greatest density of cultural resources in the nation. Five tribes lobbied Jewell and President Barack Obama to establish the Bears Ears monument to protect these sites, which they consider sacred.

Neither Randall nor her agency’s publicist returned phone messages for this story. County Commissioner Bruce Adams did not respond to an email.

Modernizing the county’s brand was a long time coming, Randall said in the news release. In a state boasting the “Mighty Five” national parks and seven national monuments, San Juan County was grouped with the famous Arches and Canyonlands national parks to the north.

“People would start their vacation hours away and make the trek into San Juan County for the rafting, hiking and other activities,” Randall said. “They would spend much of their vacation essentially commuting from their lodging without knowing they could have stayed here and not have to deal with the crowds that you see at other parks or the drive.”

Visitors sometimes complain that San Juan communities, particularly Blanding, can be less than welcoming to outsiders, all but inviting them to keep driving down U.S. Highway 191 to Bluff to eat and sleep. Blanding has banned beer and liquor sales for years, and voters reaffirmed that prohibition in 2017.