Michael Lerner: We all have a stake in Grand Staircase-Escalante’s future

Restoring the monument to its former size is only the first step in its preservation.

(Stefani Day | Tribune file photo) Hackberry Canyon, in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is photographed May, 1999.

Another wave of visitation is already hitting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument ahead of its likely border restoration — let’s get it right this time.

We all have a stake in GSENM, one of our country’s most diverse and incredible landscapes. As federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, it belongs to all Americans, not just Utahns. The monument’s beautiful slot canyons, mesas, washes and desert expanses are less accessible than many big-ticket draws in the area.

“It has real opportunities for solitude and wilderness. Most of our parks can’t provide that anymore,” said Susan Hand, the owner of Willow Canyon Outdoors in Kanab.

During the pandemic, people fleeing the cities in search of outdoor recreation have flocked to GSENM. Hundreds of vacation rentals are full in Kanab, Boulder, Escalante and other gateway towns. RV parks have proliferated and are now full year-round, no longer just seasonally. Many visitors are so captivated by the area that they move there permanently for the quality of life. Protecting the monument — not just for recreation but to maintain healthy watersheds, particularly with Kane and Garfield Counties in “exceptional drought” — is vital for the future of these gateway towns.

Suzanne Catlett, president of the Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce, emphasized that tourism to GSENM is also the bedrock of the local economy, supporting many jobs as well as a higher quality of life. Nevertheless, even though Kane and Garfield Counties benefit from tourism-driven tax revenue, the county commissioners still vocally defend former President Donald Trump’s 2017 near-halving of GSENM’s acreage.

“It’s beyond me why they want to diminish their budgets in such a way,” Catlett noted.

BLM managers originally expected most GSENM visitors to be well-informed backpackers. According to former Assistant Manager Carolyn Shelton, the BLM “didn’t expect the big boom of car camping, especially rental cars,” and they were “completely unprepared” for the influx of visitors from overcrowded parks, many of whom are unfamiliar with the unforgiving environment.

Meanwhile, shockingly few staff work across the monument’s vast acreage to educate visitors and enforce rules. The remoteness and lack of infrastructure may add to the adventure but even here, human impacts on the environment can be damaging. In fact, Shelton said, the number one problem is human waste in a fragile desert environment where it won’t decompose quickly.

So how can GSENM thrive amid the coming wave of tourism? President Joe Biden must restore its original boundaries, although that is only the first step. The key will then be emphasizing responsible visitation, especially by expanding guided educational opportunities.

“This is a subtle landscape,” said Shelton, where biological soil crust can take decades to form only to be crushed by a single errant footstep. Accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, a small group could have both a richer experience and less impact on the land.

The restored monument will need greater federal investment, particularly for educational outreach and hiring park rangers. In recent years, the BLM has focused on grazing within GSENM at the expense of scientific research and cultural preservation. The original balance must be restored, while also addressing permanently higher visitation levels. As part of this process, Native Americans with ancestral ties to the land should be hired for positions with real decision-making capacity. Greater effort should also be made to get local youth involved in the Monument’s protection.

GSENM belongs to all of us — let’s treat it with the respect it deserves.

Michael Lerner

Michael Lerner is a former journalist and current conservation volunteer in Utah for Grand Staircase Escalante Partners. He discovered Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through multiple hiking trips and is passionate about the protection and restoration of this national monument.