Economic Benefits of GSENM

Local Utah leaders – Utah’s U.S. Members of Congress, Utah state legislators, and county commissioners – continue to speak of the economic downturn resulting from the monument designation. This is simply not true – and rather a skewed perspective. Let’s take a gander at a few aspects of the economy supporting the Grand Staircase region.

The aesthetic value and beauty of the Grand Staircase region should certainly not be undersold. Those visiting western landscapes have the opportunity of experiencing some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country – thanks to the large amount of public lands available.

A 2014 Headwaters study found outdoor recreation as an important element to western economies. This same study found that rather than preventing economic growth, monument designation – and protected lands – was a factor in creating jobs, as well as sustaining property values and encouraging investment. People are inclined to move to an area offering beautiful views and an elevated quality of life.

Escalante is a prime example of a region near Grand Staircase where most businesses engage in recreation and tourism. Rather than deterring businesses, the monument has resulted in this drive to the economy. In 2015, an OpEd in the Salt Lake Tribune reported that for the 850 people making up Escalante’s population, there were 49 businesses on the Chamber of Commerce.  Businesses abound and continue to grow, as well as the network of people drawn to the area, bringing with them resources allowing for a new medical clinic and even pharmacy and dental services. The main issue from the boom is actually a labor shortage.

A diverse economy is a sound economy, but one must also consider sustainability and longevity. Looking at the numbers, the Escalante Visitor Center saw visitation numbers double from 2015 to 2016. In this day and age with Facebook and Instagram, word gets around rather quickly; people tell their friends to come visit; pictures of beautiful, unimaginable scenery draw people to these areas. Hashtags trend…

Protected lands ensure an economy based upon them will remain intact, providing a reliable economic anchor to a community.

The Bureau of Land Management manages GSENM. When the monument was designated, existing grazing and ranching permits were allowed to continue. As a result, 96.5% of the monument remains open for grazing. It is argued it could use updating, but the BLM’s management plan for grazing has not changed since 1981.

Land use is extremely important when it comes to grazing, therefore it is essential to consider the role the environment plays on the industry. Grazing levels vary from year to year due to important factors such as drought, and how drought affects the rangelands. Any BLM closures are due to an effort to protect riparian resources and restore rangelands.

When arguing about ranching on the monument, it is crucial to acknowledge that permits were allowed to continue following the designation and that the BLM plays a significant role. There is no solid agreement on how best to manage the land, but placing all fault on the monument is simply imbalanced. Factors such as management and the environment must be considered.

The role of the timber industry is consistently mentioned regarding the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante. In 2002, the Utah Forest Products mill closed, leaving its 65 employees jobless. However, it is important to note that timber was never actually produced within the monument itself. The mill sourced its wood from the Dixie National Forest. Therefore the monument’s designation is not to blame for the mill’s demise.

Before the monument designation in 1996, two companies – Andalex and PacifiCorp – held 18 coal leases on the Kaiparowits Plateau. The National Environmental Policy Act review was in the works to determine the environmental impact of unearthing “an estimated 72 million tons of coal” in proposed Smoky Hollow mine. However, President Clinton’s designation brought the process to an end, much to the dismay of those hoping to strike it big.

One has to wonder: how lucrative would a coal mine have been in this region? Although the Kaiparowits offers an abundance of goal, one cannot neglect the complications from lack of existing infrastructure and the remoteness of the region.

Fast-forward to the present-day, market forces indicate a decline in the coal industry. A Utah Foundation study shows a coal production decline in Utah – in 2015 production was “just over half of what was produced in 2001.” Many states are transitioning to natural gas and renewable resources, and coal consumption nationwide declines more and more each year – a 13% decline in 2015 from the year before, and another 17% in 2016. Although Utah relies heavily on coal it will likely follow this pattern. In this same vein, as production and consumption declines as a result of low natural gas prices and increased regulations for coal-fueled electricity generation, employment in the field similarly declines.

This indicates coal is an unreliable energy source for the future. While traditional industries – such as coal – are on the downhill slope, the region is drawing new tourism-oriented businesses due to its scenic value.

It is simply unrealistic to rely on “nostalgia economics.” Coal is a thing of the past. The region can remember its roots and reliance on traditional resources with fondness. Yet this perseverance and determination can be applied to more sustainable, long-term economic bases. This area has already benefitted from turning toward the future, reinventing itself as a region known for its tourism and beautiful scenery.