Maddie the Rock-Licker Has a Hard Think

Last week, Secretary Zinke delivered his monument review to President Trump, yet the public has only been able to see a summary of the report. Specific details regarding which monuments stand possible reduction were not included. (Fortunately it seems none will be completely eliminated; however, news reports are indicating reductions for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.)

Leveraging voices around Grand Staircase has been a priority for me, through Better Utah, these past couple months. I’ll be frank: this area is near and dear to my heart. Exploring it is where I first truly fell in love with Utah – years after growing up here! So, I’ll be the first to say it is incredibly difficult for me to be objective about its future when my heart is a big motivator behind my wanting to get involved.

That said, examining the rhetoric surrounding the issue seems like a good attempt to objectivize the matter: what are people saying? What are their roots to the region, and how might this affect their narrative?

I have had the pleasure of meeting with business owners in the Grand Staircase region and have connected with Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, both of whom are are among the strongest advocates for the monument. On the other end of the spectrum – and to my great surprise – I recently met with county commissioners from Kane County. I emailed our ABU Education Fund report, “Moving Forward: Utah’s Future Beyond Coal” to a number of county commissioners, as well as the legislature. Kane County Commissioner, Dirk Clayson, responded to my email, expressing an interest in meeting to discuss the report and what his actual concerns with the monument are. (You can see his specific concerns with the monument in the email he sent me, here.)

When discussing the future of the monument, there are a number of themes I have noticed – mainly emerging from discussions around the economy of the area. I will acknowledge my generalizations and, by labeling folks as opponents or advocates, I’m making it seem as if the issue is black and white, which it isn’t. So take this information with a grain of salt, if you will.

Traditional Industries and Outdoor Recreation

Monument opponents express frustrations with decline in traditional industries – namely ranching, timber, etc. (I actually looked into that a few months back – here.) Another common frustration, particularly from Rep. Mike Noel, is how the monument’s designation essentially killed potential coal mining projects, as well as prevented any future ability to access said coal. (I mentioned that here as well.)

Monument advocates often point to the outdoor recreation and hospitality industries that have arisen as a result of the monument designation. Many come to the region to explore the beautiful terrain and need a guide, somewhere to stay, somewhere to eat…

When these industries are mentioned to monument opponents, along with facts of economic growth and population growth, a common response is, “How are you supposed to raise a family on those wages?” (A reasonable question in a family-oriented state.) Yet business owners counter that they face a labor shortage, requiring them to raise their wages in an effort to draw employees. There are also opportunities such as construction and other services – even remote, tech work – for employment options in the off-season when outdoor recreation is not a draw.

Understatement of the year: there is no easy solution; the economic argument is multi-layered and complex. This is when I really began thinking about who is saying what and wondering who really has the right to speak for the land.

Getting to the Roots

Monument opponents are, as evident from their call to traditional industries, often people who have lived in the region for generations, people whose grandfathers ranched and who have attempted to maintain that tradition. Monument advocates are often in the area as a result of the monument – their exposure to the beautiful scenery inspired them to move to the region. Some moved before the monument’s designation, yet they were still drawn to the area as a result of the beautiful landscape – and were even instrumental in pushing for the designation.

Perspectives in the land are also evident when these roots are examined. I fully came to realize this as I spoke with the Kane County Commissioners, Dirk and Lamont Smith. At the risk of getting too far into the weeds, our definitions of scenic value differ. When speaking of conservation, they too care about preserving “scenic land” – however, they speak of green grass for cows to graze, whereas I think of the pinyon and juniper, plants that are native to the Colorado Plateau.

I truly believe these values can be traced back – again – to one’s roots in the area. When you grow up in a region surrounded by grazing lands, I imagine you can’t help but be attached. Those advocating for the monument – including myself – see such practices as degradation upon the land. After all, the native vegetation must compete with the grass on which cows graze.

Kane County’s Feelings About Coal

My other biggest impression from my meeting with Dirk and Lamont was their counter to my coal argument. Based on what I had heard from Sen. Orrin Hatch and state-Rep. Mike Noel, it seemed boundary reductions were motivated mainly to access coal reserves beneath the Kaiparowits Plateau. While I have a difficult time believing this is not the case, Dirk and Lamont brought up the monument’s management plan as the cause for concern rather than shifting boundaries (as I mentioned above). Based on our conversation, their concerns lie in maintaining their heritage – which is tied to grazing and maintaining the land so they can do the things generations before them were able to do.

My Takeaways

I won’t deny I still believe Sec. Zinke was at fault for not meeting with local business owners in the Grand Staircase region. By meeting with local leaders – who hold land values similar to Dirk and Lamont – he only heard that perspective, based on connections to land through grazing and similar “traditional” industries. However, business owners – and many of those advocating for the monument – represent the multi-faceted value of the monument in its current state: the economic value through recreation; the scientific value; and even the innate value of the land itself. Should a boundary reduction occur, these benefits are all at risk – with or without coal extraction.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this Grand Staircase project – personally, anyway – was reflecting on my conversation with Grand Staircase stakeholders with whom I did not necessarily agree. Meeting with Dirk and Lamont, shaking their hands and sitting at the same table with them, humanized monument opponents for me. It is incredibly difficult to find common ground on such a charged subject. We’re not about to sing kumbaya together and have everything be okay – no one’s opinions really changed after this meeting. However, I can’t give up the hope that having these conversations are important. Dirk and Lamont invited me to visit Kanab and the surrounding area. They’re proud of it. And even if we can’t agree on how best to manage the land or find a common definition of why the monument is valuable, I have to believe there is worth in the connection and the underlying pride we all share in our Utah roots.


-by Maddie Hayes, Rock-Licker

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