Originally published on February 11, 2020 12:20 pm
Southern Utah’s red rock desert is home to towering canyons and the clear, shallow Escalante River. It’s also home to many ancient petroglyphs. Jonathan Paklaian is trying to find one along the banks of the river. He scrambles along a cliff wall until he spots it — a petroglyph he says was drawn more than 800 years ago by the Indigenous Fremont people.
“That one looks a little unfinished,” Paklaian says. “But who knows what the artist had in mind, whether that’s the beginning or the end.”
Paklaian works for a local environmental non-profit, Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, that’s fighting to protect this place from development. He’s lived out here for a year and loves it.
“Getting out here for a trail run, it’s rejuvenating and it’s kind of like hitting a reset button on your mind,” he says.
But underneath all this beauty — the river, the canyons, the quiet — there are other treasures.
“Coal seams. Under the ground there’s oil and gas. There’s some uranium. There’s tar sands,” says John Freemuth, a public lands policy expert and professor at Boise State University. He says industry has been kicking the tires of Utah’s red rock desert for decades. “There are a lot of extractable mineral resources in that area.”
And now, with the Trump administration’s decision in 2017 to drastically reduce the boundaries of both the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, it’s possible those minerals could actually be extracted — especially since the administration this week released final management plans for lands within the former boundaries of the monuments.
But so far, drillers and miners aren’t really biting. Outside of a few small mining claims, no big oil, gas or coal companies have announced they’re setting up shop. Freemuth says there are many reasons for that.
“Industry is not stupid about the cost of producing things,” he says. “I think they’re fairly astute on the market, and some of that stuff is deep, harder to get to, expensive to produce.”
And in some cases, there isn’t much of a market demand right now for minerals like coal or uranium. So they may just stay underground.
But above ground, another industry has been growing — tourism.
“Tourism is a vital part of this community,” says Nathan Waggoner, the long-time owner of an outdoor gear shop in the town of Escalante. Tourism employs almost half the people who live and work in the area, most of them in the service industry. All in all, tourism pumps more than $150 million into the two counties that make up Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument every year.
“As people come to enjoy this place, different industries are popping up. Main Street has changed in the last 15 years and it’s good to see,” Waggoner says. “It’s good to see that in a small town in the West.”
That’s why Waggoner’s baffled the Trump administration would shrink the national monuments and boost the prospects for mining and drilling. He says that could damage the pristine nature of this place and scare away tourists.
“It’s like kicking the legs out from underneath the stool,” he says. “I mean, we were all beginning to find our place on this.”
But there are other locals who welcome the monuments’ downsizing and Trump’s call for more resource development on public lands in southern Utah.
“To open up for logging, mining, manufacturing that Trump is doing is a healthy thing for this country,” says Breck Crystal, a rancher and owner of a horseback-riding trail guiding business. “It gets people to work with their hands. It gets people to produce things.”
Even though tourism is a major industry in the area, Crystal says it has a lot of downsides for the community, like vacation homes driving up land prices, low wages and influxes of seasonal workers.
“Kids come here and they work for the tourism season. Then they go on unemployment. And they hike around here,” he says. “I ask them if they want a job moving irrigation for me. ‘No, I don’t want to work that hard. I only want to work a few hours a week. And I want to work at one of these fancy restaurants where I can get tips from people and pay for me playing.’”
Crystal thinks it’s this kind of culture that’s hurting America. He longs for the days when there were good-paying, hard-working jobs in the West. But whether those kinds of jobs will return to southern Utah now that the monuments have been downsized remains to be seen.
Conservation groups and Indigenous tribes are suing the Trump administration for shrinking the monument boundaries and for making this land available to development. If the pending lawsuits are successful, this expanse of Utah’s red rock desert will be off-limits to extractive industries once again.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. Follow Nate Hegyi on Twitter @natehegyi.
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