Ever since President Clinton’s 1996 announcement of the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (which he did at the south rim of the Grand Canyon; a little weird, but apparently the venue was closer to a good landing spot for Air Force One than Escalante’s gravel airstrip?) it’s been a favorite target of ridicule by the likes of Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and other conservatives, who barely have any teeth left after gnashing them for 20 years at Clinton’s audacity. That vitriol has been lately reinvoked as there has been considerable discussion of the potential for President Obama to create what may be our next national monuments: Bears’ Ears and Greater Canyonlands, which is whipping Hatch and Congressmen Bishop, Chaffetz, and Stewart – as well as Utah’s infamous state legislator Mike Noel – into a lather trying to figure out a way to keep that apostasy from happening.
In the meantime, GSENM has been quietly sitting there doing its thing, which is just being thousands of square miles of some of the country’s most rugged, remote, and spectacular terrain that begs exploration. As a national monument and not a wilderness, it’s crisscrossed by roads that allow access to its intimate hideaways, and therefore is nicely conducive to bike touring, which is a favorite way for us to explore Southern Utah. And we were also curious to dig a little deeper into the communities that have been affected by the designation to see for ourselves if the economic devastation that has been purported by our delegation has indeed occurred.
The small hamlet of Boulder is a natural place to start GSENM adventures. In addition being the closest access point to Salt Lake, its perfect elevation of not-too-low to be blistering in the summer and not-too-high so it’s mostly snow-free in the winter, the intersection of three roads that lead to beautiful, remote areas (Highway 12, the Burr Trail, and the Hell’s Backbone), and is also home to some of the best food in Utah. The Hell’s Backbone restaurant and Burr Trail Grill not only have incredible food, it’s clear that these two places are the “backbone” (so to speak) of the town, since they are on either side of the famed Boulder Mountain Lodge and on the same grounds is the Burr Trail Outpost. The Lodge opened in 1994, the Grill in 1996, and the restaurant in 2000, and between them they are the major employers in town and their business has increased every year. Strike one for the supposed economic apocalypse of national monument creation.
Any cyclist who has driven their car from Highway 12 from Boulder to Calf Creek, across the Escalante River, and back up to the mesa above has thought “man, I’d love to ride this section of road!” Between rolling the ridge high above Calf Creek with sublime views out into the both the Boulder Creek and Death Hollow regions, the steep serpentine descent into the canyon, and the nice, not-too-long climb up out of the canyon it’s no wonder that many Europeans come all the way here specifically to ride the famed Highway 12 that creates the northern border of the GSENM.
Once up on the Mesa it’s a pretty quick zip to the area’s namesake, Escalante. A year ago Escalante’s civic leaders declared a formal state of emergency, saying the town was “fading away under the weight of federal land policies that put preservation ahead of extraction.” But anyone who has had a calzone and bought Chacos at Escalante Outfitters, rented an ATV, jeep, or even a paddleboard from a few different rental places, or been in the new outdoor gear shop knows for themselves that the town is far from the ghost town than their “all change is for the worse” old time leadership laments. One important piece of equipment we had forgotten for our bike trip in the desert was chain lube, and with a little sleuthing I found a character in town who has a motorcycle repair shop in a back shed. I figured anyone who had a sign that said “Welcome Bikers of The World” would be keen to help out a cyclist, and despite the fact that he looked a lot more like the other type of “biker” I was right, and he was happy to dig out a bottle of mostly-appropriate bike chain lube. I took this opportunity of meeting a local to ask him how the national monument had affected his life there, and he looked at me like I was crazy: “I initially came here because of the monument, and the only reason I can have a motorcycle business here is due to people coming to visit the monument!” Strike two for the national monument naysayers.
The next stop was Kodachrome Basin state park. This was an interesting spot for our national monument tour, because in addition to hating the president’s potential use of the Antiquities Act, Utah-based politicians also want to “take back” the federal lands within the state’s borders (to be clear: the state never actually had the land in the first place; it’s been federal land since the beginning) saying that the state could manage the land better than the feds. And the truth is…. Kodachrome is a great park by any standards. Beautiful, well-managed, a wide array of fun things to do for a range of visitors, and the campground even has warm showers! So to give the state credit, it clearly is possible to have some well-managed lands. However, it’s clear that Kodachrome is the state’s gem park; it’s featured most prominently on their website.
A key connection of our tour was the Cottonwood Wash road that goes south of Kodachrome Basin, paralleling the Paria River down to highway 89. It was built in one summer in the late ‘50’s to transport rock from the lofty reaches of Powell Point to the construction site of Glen Canyon dam, and it happened to go through a beautiful section of Utah, with the dramatic Grosvenor Arch, the Paria Gorge, the Cottonwood Narrows, and other slot canyons and slickrock buttes along the way. However, the road was built quickly with no real thought given to the potential for washouts, and the infamous deluge that struck Zion and Colorado City in September 2015 with tragic results also blew an impassible trench across the road that effectively closed it. This made for a wonderfully car-free bike tour, but we found out later that there was apparently a spat between the county and the feds over fixing the road, and both sides were holding out, with the public being the losers (ultimately the county – which “owns” the roads in the monument – did fix it over the winter).
Our next adventure was to leave the bikes for a day and do a 20-ish mile long through-hike from the trailhead for The Wave down through the vertical-walled slot of Buckskin Gulch and up the Paria; what The author Michael Kelsey calls The Best Slot Canyon In The World. We needed a shuttle driver and found Steve of Paria Outfitters, and on the drive we asked him how the monument creation had affected him and his business. Like our benevolent biker in Escalante, Steve gave us an incredulous look: “Are you kidding?! The Monument is the entire reason I came here and it’s the basis for my business!” (he also has cabins and does weekend brisket barbeques) because of his proximity to the world-famous Wave and Coyote Gulch (it’s virtually impossible to get a permit to get into the Wave now without planning months in advance, and sometimes hundreds of people wait in line in Kanab for the dozen or so last-minute daily spots). As we marched down through the spectacular narrows of Buckskin Gulch, we agreed: strike three for the “the only real jobs are in extraction and grazing” crowd.
Like many tourists, our travels in the region led us to Kanab, where a rainstorm kept us sleeping in a motel instead of the mud, and dining at the famous Rockin’ V restaurant in lieu of over a Whisperlite. Vic the owner (hence the “V”) is a “Chicago Jew” who came to Kanab shortly after Clinton’s proclamation and his restaurant has thrived ever since. “During the high season I have people waiting 2 hours for a table! And in addition to the new hotel outside of town there are two more hotels going in right here in town! I don’t know how I’m going to be able to manage the growth!” It appears that the historically-hardscrabble, old movie-set town of Kanab isn’t doing too badly with the nearby monument either; strike four! (and you’re really out!).
Since last fall’s bike tour we went out to paddle the Owyhee river in southeastern Oregon in the spring, where coincidentally they are facing the same issue; there has been pressure on Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewel to create an Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument, and just as much pressure not to. As we pulled into the dusty, nearly boarded up town of Jordan Valley that over the past 10 years since we were last there has shown that it can’t even support a diner or a bar we saw a handpainted sign that said “no national monument!” Our first reaction – based on what we’d seen in Utah last fall – was that the locals were exclaiming: “That’s right! We in this region feel that all change is for the worse, and we’d rather have our town dry up and blow away with an economy based on extractive commodities with wildly-fluctuating prices and cattle grazing that depends on hopeful non-droughts than potentially have a thriving, long-term tourist economy.” To be fair, it’s no secret that tourism-related jobs don’t necessarily pay as well as extractive commodity jobs. But comparing the stunning rise and fall of Vernal’s gas-related fortunes over the last few years to Moab’s transition from its own 1950’s-70’s uranium-related, boom-and-bust cycle to becoming one of the West’s premier tourist hotbeds, it’s clear which economic model has the most long term vitality.
The Bear’s Ears and the Greater Canyonlands are slightly different stories, with the former having much to do with Native American heritage and the latter creating a non-extractive buffer around existing federal – and state (Dead Horse Point) – parks, but the fundamental point remains the same: the creation of national monuments such as the Grand Staircase/Escalante not only does not create the economic hardship as complained about by old school ranchers or elected officials, but it is actually hugely beneficial. And not just to we sporadic, urban, recreational visitors seeking exceptional outdoor experiences, but to the local economies as well.
So let’s hope that President Obama exercises his executive privilege and creates these national monuments so that not only do future bike tourers need not worry about coal or oil trucks barreling down on them, but the associated communities can thrive even as the land is protected, and let Senator Hatch grind down into dust what few teeth he may have left.