“Stroke of a pen” national monument designations tend to evoke intense reactions from many Utahns, as we saw when the two most recent national monuments were designated in our state.
There were powerful reasons to create the monuments, and strong arguments to reduce their original size. Today, however, our economic opportunities are changing. This is where Utah finds itself now and it is through this new lens that we need to re-examine the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments.
Both monuments protect many objects and sites of historic and scientific value, while also providing world-class recreation opportunities and solace for many Americans seeking the quiet beauty found in these areas. On Dec. 4, 2017, President Donald Trump drastically reduced the size of these monuments — an unprecedented step that is still being reviewed by federal courts. Not only were many important ancestral, cultural, conservation and recreation areas removed from protection when the monuments were downsized, but some key economic prospects for nearby communities were also undermined.
It is likely, however, that there will be changes in the future. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden directed the Department of the Interior to review the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments.
Right now, demand for outdoor access is expanding, supercharged by the pandemic, as more people want to visit and live in scenic, rural places. This is a long-term trend that is gaining speed as working from home becomes the norm for many Americans.
Economists call it growth in the footloose economy — people who can work wherever they choose. Many communities with access to public lands are seeing revenue not just from tourism, but from quality-of-life recruits who are bringing their businesses to rural areas. Many Utahns, including professionals, retirees, and entrepreneurs, are looking for places where they can hike, bike, hunt and fish — not just on weekends and vacation — but on breaks during the day. And young people raised in these communities are looking for good jobs that won’t require them to leave their home towns.
One significant advantage of national monument designation is it provides free marketing that helps brand remote rural areas, giving them a unique identity and a reason for people to visit. Through careful planning, with input from state and local elected officials, communities can maintain their traditional authenticity, protect sacred and scenic treasures, preserve cowboy culture and manage visitors and new residents in a way that benefits everyone. And while change is challenging, we have the chance to shape our future and create the kinds of communities where more people want to live.
National monument designation does not have to be a zero-sum proposition. We can sustain and grow our rural communities, preserve our history, protect traditional lifestyles, and pursue new economies, without one goal having to come at the expense of another. The likely reinstatement of the original boundaries for both Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments provides significant economic opportunities for the communities in those regions.
By sharing these special places with visitors and newcomers, as well as celebrating our outdoor lifestyles, rural Utah has an opportunity to use these special landscapes to prosper and advance in the 21st century.
Patrice Arent recently completed 20 years as a member of the Utah Senate and House of Representatives. She helps manage the Boulder Mountain Lodge, a business that her family co-owns in Boulder, UT.