When Everybody Wants A Piece Of 'God's Country' | WOSU Radio

When Everybody Wants A Piece Of 'God's Country'

Jul 8, 2019
Originally published on July 11, 2019 1:05 pm

About 300 miles south of Salt Lake City, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is at the heart of some of the most remote terrain in the lower 48. Famous for its red rock canyons, arches and fossil beds, the rugged land is punctuated by sites like Death Ridge, Carcass Canyon and Hell's Backbone Road.

Those names staked on the old maps by the region's first white settlers tell you all you need to know about how harsh, brutal and beautiful the land is.

"Them old cowboys back in those days, they were tough," says Shannon Steed, a businessman and armchair local historian.

Steed comes from a long line of Mormon pioneers: the cowboys and loggers who helped tame this country, as locals put it, and scratch out a living from it.

His hometown Escalante, population 800, along the meandering Escalante River is ringed by mesas.

The town has long struggled economically, especially since its timber mill closed in the 1990s — Steed's father ran it. Depending on who you ask, things got even worse when President Bill Clinton protected much of the area as a national monument in 1996.

Today, it remains a flashpoint for one of the rural West's perennial and most polarizing fights — who gets to do what on federal public lands.

In December 2017, President Trump signed a proclamation shrinking the protected boundaries of the GSEM nearly in half. This summer, the administration is moving ahead with plans to open up parts of it to mining and expanded cattle grazing, despite legal challenges and a recent effort by Democrats to thwart the move.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

'E for Escalante'

The latest battle over the Grand Staircase is reigniting a decades-old debate about the future of the rural communities in and around the monument, which have lately seen an influx of newer residents setting up businesses around tourism.

On the outskirts of town, Steed points out a closed timber mill his dad used to own. Up to his left is a large "E" painted on the side of a hill.

"It doesn't stand for environmentalist," Steed says. "It stands for Escalante."

In some corners of this town, environmentalist is still a dirty word.

"We've always said it's God's country," Steed says. "The people from out here said that's because nobody'd have it but God, and now it seems like everybody wants it."

Shannon Steed stands on land that used to house his father's sawmill. The mill closed in the early 1990s due in part to a lack of available timber supply from nearby National Forest lands.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

From Steed's perspective, the environmentalists won the land in 1996 when Clinton designated it the largest national monument in the country.

The original designation protected roughly 1.7 million acres (Congress later added to it to make it 1.9 million).

"He just made a big land grab out of it and locked it all up," Steed says.

If Trump's proclamation holds in court, and the monument is downsized into three smaller units, much of the land could be reopened to mining. Nearly two-dozen mining claims have already been filed, mostly from locals. One Canadian company looked into mining cobalt after Trump's proclamation. There is also believed to be extensive coal reserves, but there are long-standing questions about its economic viability.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

And then there are the ranchers who lease federal public land in and around the monument to graze livestock. When Clinton designated the monument, most existing grazing leases were grandfathered in. But no new leases were to be issued. That could soon change.

In political limbo

Todd Phillips is a rancher who has grazed his cows on the monument land for years. But he's not betting his future on expanded grazing within the monument.

"I think it depends a lot on the election," Phillips says. "I think if a Democrat gets in, I think they're gonna put it back like it is and probably then some just to prove a point."

Congressional Democrats just ordered an investigation. They claim the Trump administration illegally appropriated funds to redraw the monument boundaries based on where they could lease land to industry.

They really do, they actually hate us. - Shannon Steed

On the ground, federal land managers say they are just following orders from above as the ligation plays out in federal court. They're currently drafting a plan for how the land, and underlying resources, will be used.

"We've been told by those above us that we need to get this plan written," says Harry Barber, the acting manager of the monument for the Bureau of Land Management. "We'll do it until we're told not to."

Utah — with its conservative politics, history of a robust environmental movement and world-famous national parks and monuments — is one of the most tense states in the nation when it comes to control of federal public lands. Utah's elected leaders are often seen as at the forefront of the push to transfer vast amounts of public land to state or private control.

In Escalante, locals like Shannon Steed and Todd Phillips see their rural heritage as being under threat.

"Some of these guys, these radicals, aren't gonna be happy until there isn't any cows left on public land," Phillips says.

Steed agrees. "They really do, they actually hate us."

A rural divide

But this isn't just an ages-old western tale pitting rural ranchers against influential environmentalists from liberal cities like San Francisco or Washington. Today Steed and Phillips now share their communities with a diverse set of people. More recent transplants are running businesses that have sprung up since the monument was created: from the James Beard finalist, farm-to-table restaurant to modern hotels and vacation cabins to the thriving Escalante Outfitters, owned by Nathan Waggoner and his family.

"These are public lands. They don't just belong to people in the gateway communities here where I live," Waggoner says. "They don't just belong to people in the state of Utah. They belong to everybody."

Located between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has become a big tourist draw since its designation in 1996.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

Waggoner worries that a new mine or more cattle could turn the protected land into an industrial zone and drive the tourists, and his source of income, away. He employs more than two dozen people who work in his outdoor gear shop, cafe, cabins and outfitter. Increasingly, the traditional tourist season is expanding in length, meaning only a couple of lean months a year when the business may close.

That's really hard to have a small business in America with such big strings being pulled. - Nathan Waggoner

Since President Trump signed the proclamation at the Utah state capitol in December 2017, Waggoner says he's been operating in a state of constant uncertainty.

"That's really hard to have a small business in America with such big strings being pulled," he says.

Waggoner joined one of the lawsuits filed by a local environmental group called Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners. They're arguing President Trump illegally usurped Congress by shrinking Escalante and the nearby Bears Ears monuments' boundaries. Legal experts have widely held that, under the Antiquities Act, a president can designate a monument but only Congress has the power to shrink it.

When she first moved to Escalante in 2007, says Nicole Croft, executive director of Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, the monument designation was so controversial that "you did not tell people you moved here because of the monument."

So instead she would give the other reason she moved — her son's asthma. She wanted to escape the winter smog in Salt Lake City and raise her family in a small town.

Croft says politicians are stoking the fight over the monument, playing on people's fears of economic uncertainty.

"Grazing represents the pioneer spirit and the hard-scrabble heritage that Mormon people are really proud of," Croft says. "You know, that's part of my Mormon heritage that I'm very proud of. "

Mistrust of the federal government also runs deep in that Mormon heritage. Especially in southern Utah, where in the 1800s, the feds dispatched troops to stop the settlers from practicing polygamy.

For Nicole Croft, anti-government leanings may be behind the resistance to a changing economy. It's a phenomenon that's occurring across the rural West where once-natural resource dependent towns are transitioning to more recreation and amenities, sometimes to the chagrin of families who've worked the land for generations.

The new tourism jobs don't tend to pay as well as jobs in the mining sector. But, since the Grand Staircase monument was designated, this isolated region's population has actually grown, alongside a 24% increase in new jobs.

Even Shannon Steed, the longtime local, relies on tourism. He runs wild west-themed shows, tours of dinosaur fossil beds and petrified forests and rents out restored farm houses on Airbnb. But he says there's a catch.

"The tourism around here is seasonal," Steed says. "You've got six months to make it and six months to starve."

More mining and ranching could coexist here with the tourism, Steed says. It's an argument that will be debated into 2020 and beyond.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An old fight over protected public land in the West is getting new wind. In southern Utah, the Trump administration is trying to open up parts of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to mining and more cattle grazing. Democrats are trying to keep that from happening. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, the controversy is reigniting debate over the future of a rural community in America's West that is getting less rural.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Five hours south of Salt Lake City, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is famous for its remote red rock canyons, its arches and fossil beds.

The place names on the maps tell you how rugged and harsh this country is. There's a Death Ridge, Carcass Canyon, the Hell's Backbone Road.

SHANNON STEED: Them old cowboys back in those days, they were - they were tough.

SIEGLER: Shannon Steed comes from a long line of Mormon pioneer cowboys. His rancher and logger ancestors helped build this town - Escalante, population 800. Today, he's something of a local historian. Riding around in his pickup can feel like you're travelling back to the Old West.

STEED: This used to be the old blacksmith shop, old Porter right here.

SIEGLER: On the edge of town, we pass by the old site of a timber mill. His dad used to own it. Then Steed points up to a hill on his left. There's a big letter E painted white.

STEED: The E up on the hill there, it doesn't stand for environmentalist. It stands for Escalante.

SIEGLER: He's joking, but environmentalist is still a dirty word for some around here. And even how you pronounce the name of the town can be loaded. Longtime locals say Escalante. The newer folks running the organic bakeries or eco-tourist companies may pronounce it Escalante. This part of Utah was once Mexico, after all.

STEED: They've been fighting over this land. We've always said it's God's country, and the people who come out here says that's 'cause nobody would have it but God. Now it seems like everybody wants it.

SIEGLER: The environmentalists, he says, got it in 1996, when President Clinton designated it the largest national monument in the country. Two decades later, President Trump signed his own proclamation, shrinking it nearly in half. Shannon Steed thinks downsizing was the right move.

STEED: And there's a lot of places out there that need to be protected. And there's a lot of places out there that - you know what? - is pretty desolate and no water and hasn't seen nothing but cows and cowboys.

SIEGLER: If Trump's proclamation holds in court and the monument is downsized into three smaller units, some of this land will again be open to mining. Some locals have already filed claims. And then there are the ranchers who lease public land around here for grazing. Their old leases were grandfathered in, but the monument designation barred new leasing. That could soon change.

A little south of town, we run into Steed's friend, Todd Phillips. He's a rancher.

TODD PHILLIPS: Sorry about that. I was on the phone.

STEED: I gathered that, that fancy rig you got. Yeah.

SIEGLER: Next to his corrals, the two men lean out their pickup windows to chat. Phillips has grazed his cows on the monument land for years, but he's not counting on much changing.

STEED: Well, I think it depends a lot on the election. I think if a Democrat gets in, I think they're going to put it back like it was and probably then some just to prove a point.

SIEGLER: Congressional Democrats just ordered an investigation. They claim the Trump administration illegally appropriated funds to redraw the monument boundaries based on where they could lease land to industry. The acting manager of the national monument says they're just following orders from above.

Utah feels like one of the most tense states in the West right now when it comes to public lands. You've got the conservative Mormon politics, the world-famous national parks and monuments alongside a robust environmental movement. And to hear Shannon Steed and Todd Phillips say it, their heritage is under threat.

PHILLIPS: Like, some of these guys, these radicals, aren't going to be happy until there isn't any cows left on public land.

STEED: They really do. They actually hate us.

PHILLIPS: Oh, they do.

SIEGLER: But this isn't just some tale about urban environmentalists going up against rural ranchers. Nowadays, Steed and Phillips share their community with a whole lot of newcomers. They're running businesses that have sprung up since the monument was created - modern hotels, a James Beard finalist restaurant and Nate Waggoner's thriving Escalante Outfitters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So - or if want something that's not sunscreen, you can just get this...

SIEGLER: And Nate Waggoner's livelihood also depends on the land.

NATE WAGGONER: These are public lands. They don't just belong to people in the gateway communities here where I live. They don't just belong to people in the state of Utah. They belong to everybody.

SIEGLER: Waggoner worries that a new mine or more cattle could turn the protected land into an industrial zone and drive the tourists away.

WAGGONER: It's just this constant uncertainty, and that's really hard. It's hard to have a small business in America with such big strings being pulled.

SIEGLER: Waggoner joined one of the lawsuits filed by a local environmental group. They're arguing President Trump illegally usurped Congress by shrinking Escalante and the nearby Bears Ears monuments' boundaries. Nicole Croft heads the group Grand Staircase Escalante Partners.

NICOLE CROFT: When I first moved here in 2007, you did not tell people that you moved here because of the monument.

SIEGLER: So she'd just give the other reason. Her son has asthma, and they needed to escape the terrible winter smog in Salt Lake City. She says politicians are stoking this fight over the monument, playing on people's fears of economic uncertainty.

CROFT: Grazing represents the pioneer spirit and the hardscrabble heritage that Mormon people are really proud of. You know, that's part of my Mormon heritage that I'm very proud of.

SIEGLER: Mistrust of the federal government runs deep in that Mormon heritage. This goes back to the 1800s, before of Utah was granted statehood, when the feds dispatched Army troops to stop the settlers from practicing polygamy. For Nicole Croft, that anti-government sentiment may be behind the resistance to a changing economy here, which is happening across the rural West.

The new tourism jobs don't pay as well as, say, mining. But since the monument was designated, this isolated region's population has actually grown, alongside a 24% increase in new jobs.

STEED: Let's go - burning daylight.

SIEGLER: And the thing is, Shannon Steed, the longtime local, well, his livelihood also depends on tourism. He runs Wild-West-themed shows and tours of dinosaur fossil beds and petrified forests. He also rents out restored farmhouses on Airbnb. But he says there's a catch.

STEED: It's seasonal. The tourism around here is seasonal. You've got six months to make it and six months to starve.

SIEGLER: More mining and ranching could co-exist with tourism here, he says, an argument that will keep getting debated until 2020, if not beyond. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Escalante, Utah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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