Southern Utah is known as red-rock country, a place of magical canyons and arches sculpted from red sandstone, amidst sagebrush desert. And yet, in my travels in and through these fantastical places, it is the yellow sandstone of the Grosvenor Arch—a double arch, to be more accurate—that has stuck in my mind the most.
Several years ago, my wife and I found Grosvenor Arch standing out of the desert after driving ten miles on a harsh, unimproved dirt road in the middle of a vast and spectacular wilderness. Just to the south, we came across a group of scientists who were excavating a new species of duck-billed dinosaur—on the side of the road, looking at first like they were widening the road’s shoulder.
The arch is one of the better-known sights of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which was established by President Clinton in the middle of the 1996 election. The designation ended efforts by a Murray Energy Corporation subsidiary to establish a 50,000-acre coal mine in this location. The monument encompasses almost 1.9 million acres: a treasure trove of slot canyons, petroglyphs, fossils, and wild desert scenery.
President Trump has been considering whether to shrink or eliminate the monument and many others this year. Local officials, still angry over Clinton’s monument designation more than two decades later, have stoked this possible move. In March, for example, Garfield County commissioners passed a resolution urging much smaller borders for the monument, for the sake of economic growth.
The question may come to a head soon. in August, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced that the administration is looking to downsize the Grand Staircase-Escalante and two new monuments that President Obama created shortly before he left office: Bears Ears, also in Southern Utah, and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon.
Because Grand-Staircase-Escalante has been established for more than two decades, it can provide a good case study to evaluate the economic impacts of national monuments—answering, perhaps, one of the primary points of controversy.
Mark Austin, a local building contractor and member of the Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce, told USA Today in May that new home construction in the area next to Grand Staircase-Escalante is at an all-time high and business growth is steady. He pointed out that three new lodging facilities recently opened and two others are under construction.
Paul Jakus, a Utah State University researcher, told the Salt Lake Tribune in August that vast monuments are “neither a boon nor a bane.” In research awaiting peer review, Jakus found that the per-capita income in Garfield and Kane counties—the two counties containing Grand Staircase-Escalante—increased when compared to similar counties.
Jakus felt that the significance of this increase, however, was diminished when comparing the counties to the rest of Utah as a whole. While the monument boosted the local economy, it did not eliminate the disparities with wealthier counties to the north.
Data from Headwaters Economics, an independent research group, painted a rosier picture. From 2001 to 2015, the population of the two rural counties increased 13 percent while employment increased 24 percent. Real personal income grew by 32 percent. Overall, the regional economies of 13 national monuments, out of 17 that Headwaters researchers examined, grew at a similar or faster rate when compared to similar counties in their states. All 17 regions, however, saw some degree of economic growth.
The question is whether economic growth through tourism and conservation can compete with natural resource extraction activities like coal mining and oil fracking. Certainly, extraction activities lie at the heart of the current administration’s economic agenda. In March, President Trump lifted a moratorium on coal mining leases on federal lands and in August he even went so far as to cancel a federally funded study of health risks to neighboring communities of surface coal mines in the Appalachian mountains.
But even if the monuments were eliminated and the land was open to all sorts of extraction, the economic future is murky at best. The coal-burning power plant closest to Grand Staircase-Escalante, in Page, Arizona, is slated to close in 2019 and the Navajo Nation started a solar farm shortly before Zinke’s announcement. Almost 40 coal-fired plants are already set to close by 2021 as more and more utilities transition to cleaner sources of energy.
And if the monuments were downsized, shrunk down to only the most obvious patches of desert, what would that look like? Can a natural scene exist without its ecosystem? Without the trip through barren desert, would Grosvenor appeal as much? Or would it instead take on the fast-food feel of McDonald’s golden arches, where you can drive in and drive through without even getting out of your car?
Grosvenor Arch was not the only location my wife and I visited in the Grand Staircase-Escalante. Peek-a-boo Gulch is a wonderful slot canyon with red rock swirls that rival more popular destinations, and Spooky Gulch narrows into a tight crevice that not everyone can squeeze through. Both spots are accessible only via an even bumpier unimproved road scratched through a barren desert landscape with the Fifty-Mile Mountain in the distance—striped cliffs that once were an ancient shoreline, behind which lie the coal deposits that threaten the entire monument.
If those cliffs are breached and mined, what sights get saved and what get discarded? What archaeological findings are lost? And how long would that mine last?
In the Southern Utah desert, we have a vision of what sustainable economic growth looks like. Two decades of an upwards trajectory, with important real estate set aside for all to explore and enjoy. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.