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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Escalante Wilderness: Monument of the West

Air Date: Week of October 16, 1998

During the 1996 election campaign, President Clinton authorized the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the Utah wilderness. There's not much difference between a national monument and a national park, except that the creation of national monuments doesn't require the approval of Congress. Mr. Clinton may not have had the votes on Capitol Hill, but he did expect to get votes from the environmentally concerned public. The deal angered many local residents. Ranchers and farmers said it locked up land that had earned them their daily bread for decades. And the designation killed plans for a coal mine that might have created hundreds of jobs. Today, some folks are still mad, but dollars are beginning to flow to the community, from not- entirely-welcomed tourism. Jenny Brundin reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. During the 1996 campaign, President Clinton used his pen to create the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in the Utah national wilderness. Now, there's not much difference between a national monument and a national park, except that the creation of national monuments doesn't require the approval of Congress. Mr. Clinton may not have had the votes on Capitol Hill, but he did expect to get votes from the environmentally-concerned public. The deal angered many local residents. Ranchers and farmers said it locked up land that had earned them their daily bread for decades. the designation killed plans for a coal mine that might have created hundreds of jobs. Today, some folks are still mad, but dollars are beginning to flow to the community from not entirely welcome tourism. Jenny Brundein reports.

(Footfalls)

MECHAM: Now if you look in here, you see the little hay plants are starting in here. See it? Boy, that'll grow up to be pretty.

BRUNDEIN: Stan Mecham snaps off a handful of oats and breathes deeply into them. This 150-acre farm tucked into a rolling valley is the love of his life. It also happens to be inside Utah's Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Bordering his fields of oats and yellow clover are sculpted red rock cliffs that curve into a brilliant blue sky. As Stan Mecham climbs up a butte, he points out native grasses, Indian rice and spear grass. He runs his fingers over the hardscrabble earth.

(Cricket song)

MECHAM: Can you hear the crickets? Can you hear the wind this soft, see? Sometimes the wind is louder, but it's real quiet here. I love it here. It's just a peaceful spot.

BRUNDEIN: But Mr. Mecham is worried about the National Monument, designated by President Clinton 2 years ago. Worried about damage that tourism will bring to the land. And despite Clinton's promises that grazing rights will be respected, Stan Mecham thinks he'll lose his right to run cattle across his tiny section of the sprawling monument, a vast expanse of labyrinthian canyons and vermilion cliffs.

MECHAM: As far as I'm concerned it's a stewardship that I have here. And I feel some day we'll be accountable to God. I'm not going to get on a real religious kick, but I believe when I die, if I've made it a better place for the animals and for everybody else, what's wrong with that? Isn't that what I should do? Not do nothing? As far as I'm concerned, I think what they want is me out of here. Completely out of here.

BRUNDEIN: Tensions between the Federal Government and local people here still run high. Recently, there has been some cooperation. Planning a monument headquarters for one. And in May, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed a historic land swap between the state and Federal Government, the largest such deal in the continental United States. Before the monument designation, thousands of acres inside the site were school trust lands. They would have earned income for Utah's schools once developed. The new deal protects these acres inside the monument, And in other parks, from development. In exchange, Utah's schools receive a $50 million cash payment, plus land of equivalent value outside the monument. Governor Mike Leavitt.

LEAVITT: It's a very good thing for the school children, a great thing for the counties where the lands are located, And a wonderful victory for the environment, because we'll have 377,000 acres of pristine land within national parks preserved forever.

BRUNDEIN: Some rural Utahns complain that they weren't consulted about the swap, but at the same time locals are starting to conclude that ranching, farming, And mining are no longer their future. Tourism has started to blossom with the monument designation. Garfield County Commission Anne Parry, already fielding unusual questions from would-be sightseers.

LISTON: The first thing they say is, "Where is the Grand Staircase? Can we climb it? Is it wheelchair accessible?" One woman even asked, "Can my husband climb it if he has to use a cane?" And they go away very disappointed, actually, that there is no grand staircase to climb.

BRUNDEIN: The stairs, by the way, are a 7,000-foot incline of red rock cliffs and terraces some 90 to 100 miles long. Each community bordering the monument encourages a distinctive kind of sightseeing. The town of Tropic along the monument's northwestern border is trying to develop Heritage Tourism. Local women hope to sell traditional quilts to tourists. Former loggers want to market wood furniture. And along the monument's southern border, locals say their style of tourism needs the monument's water.

(A golf club swings)

MAN: The green is over this way. (Laughs)

JUDD: We've got a little 9-hole golf course here, And we ran out of water last year.

BRUNDEIN: King County Commissioner Joe Judd says the sandstone plateaus act like great sponges, collecting water for the town. Those formations are now inside the monument. As long as they continue to provide water, Joe Judd hopes there will be enough to expand the golf course to 18 holes.

JUDD: But in order to make that next jump to build that next 9 holes, somebody's got to come up with a couple million dollars. And you have to have the water. And you have to have a constant source, because you don't water a golf course for a couple of weeks and you don't have a golf course.

BRUNDEIN: The town is assured of its water rights. Mr. Judd says that could make the difference between high-level tourism, where visitors spend a few days and pocketfuls of money, And low-level tourism, where visitors breeze through.

(Milling and music, a bell rings. A man calls, "Come and get it!")

BRUNDEIN: It's the Chuckwagon Cook-out at Denny's Wigwam in Kanab. This is one of the town's more successful tourist businesses. But owner Dennis Judd says the designation hasn't boosted business because the monument, a desolate, isolated land mass, has no infrastructure. Indeed, a pamphlet by the Bureau of Land Management or BLM is titled, "Don't Die Out There."

JUDD: You know, we're talking off-road, off beaten trails. We're talking 4- wheel drives. We're talking no water. We're talking no restrooms. We're talking no places for them to go and get shade, things of this nature. And so yes, it will be some people come to see the Grand Staircase Monument. But how much will come remains to be seen by the accessibility made to it by the county or by the government or by the BLM or whoever's going to be in charge of making it accessible to the people.

BRUNDEIN: Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has said that instead of building lodges and restaurants in the heart of the monument, he wants to see development take place in the surrounding communities. Some county commissioners are arguing for paving a few major roads through the monument so tourists can travel more safely. Some are pushing for tourists to leave their cars in town for days, And local guides would take them into the monument. Residents like Susan Hand of Kanab are still grappling with this dilemma. They live here because they love the land. And now, instead of just living on it, they say they have to peddle it like a product.

HAND: I know for me, that going into the backcountry and having solitude there, is a really enriching experience on a spiritual level. I go out there, I see the hand of God. And I think for many people that's true. And it's an important release that we all need access to. But in terms of economics, the wilderness, the wildlife, the endangered species, all of it in the end it has to pay for itself as a package or we won't keep it. That's the American Way.

(Cricket song)

BRUNDEIN: Many officials here say they hope communities can develop a style of tourism that protects the environment and that provides good incomes to rural Utahns. The Bureau of Land Management is putting the finishing touches on the monument's draft environmental impact statement. Five alternatives will be presented, each detailing the types and levels of recreation and facilities in the monument. The public will weigh in on the plans in December and January, allowing rural residents some voice in determining their changing relationship with the scenic monument they live near. For Living on Earth, I'm Jenny Brundein.

 

 

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