(CN) – Rabbitbrush bloomed in abundance, casting a soft yellow sheen that extended out from both sides of the desert roadway. To the north, the carpet of wildflowers was broken only by distant hills along the horizon that wall in the Paria River Valley. The super bloom gave testament to the glut of precipitation that fell in Utah’s high desert this past winter.
The hills are cracked with drainage patterns, rounded tops offset with an occasional pyramidal peak. The Paria River runs shallow but steady, wide and brown, slouching casually through wide bends amid the cottonwoods.
I had driven to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from St. George – nestled in the southwestern corner of Utah – the previous day. I navigated through Zion Canyon National Park and its roads snarled with cars and campers, stopping to walk on a tourist-laden trail before continuing on to Grand Staircase. Upon arriving, I was struck by the sharp contrast between the monument and its more famous neighbor – not so much the beauty of its landscape, but its measure of solitude.
“Wilderness is where a person goes, but does not stay,” a monument park ranger told me during the first days my wanderings amid the immense desert territory that comprises the monument.
No one stays long in Grand Staircase.
The first night I slept in the back of my pickup beneath the glinting pinpricks of innumerable stars. The Milky Way spans the night sky, sharpened with desert clarity.
The next morning, I had two cups of camp coffee and some instant oatmeal and stumbled up Coyote Canyon with its rocks worn smooth by intermittent cascades that pour through the canyon.
It was early June and flowers were everywhere, belying the desert’s reputation as a desolate place where little grows.
The canyon flanks were littered with the characteristic hoodoos of the Utah desert, large russet boulders impossibly propped up by thin necks of red rock. I climbed a wall where a waterfall had died of thirst and ate lunch in the shade, drinking more water than was wise to defray the midday heat. By the time I retraced the path to the pickup, the sun was high and I hadn’t seen a single other person since the previous night when I took a left off of Highway 89 running the southern border of the monument onto Cottonwood Canyon Road that runs 47 miles north to south through the heart of Grand Staircase Escalante.
Such solitude felt rare, is rare.
The sole hike I took in Zion Canyon National Park was more reminiscent of an amusement park line. While at Bryce Canyon, I came off the Navajo Loop Trail at Sunset Point where an incredibly crowded parking lot featured two grown men nearly coming to blows over a parking spot.
But Grand Staircase Escalante is different. No less spectacular, but far less crowded.
All four nights I slept under the stars at different points throughout the park and not once did I share my camp with another soul. The mornings and nights I spent alone.
The third night I slept out by Early Weed Trailhead with an expansive overlook of the Escalante River, the last free-flowing tributary of the Colorado River. Tucked in a nook just out of the wind, I woke up in the middle of the night when the nearly full moon was at its zenith and saw a coyote slinking through the pinyon woodlands that extends for miles.
The coyote stopped and looked at me. She seemed surprised. She soon ducked her head and was off.
I dozed off while thinking about how good it felt in this increasingly tame world to be regarded by something wild.
Grand Staircase affords such solitude mostly due to its sheer size. Before Dec. 4, 2017, it encompassed just short of 1.9 million acres in southern Utah, a touch north of the Arizona border.
But President Donald Trump issued an executive order near the end of his first year in office reducing the size of the monument 47%, leaving the monument with about 1 million acres.
The reduction, as with all things Trump, prompted sharp division at the national level that is particularly palpable in the small rural communities surrounding the monument which depend on the landscape for its economy, recreation and lifestyle.
Proponents of the reduction said the Antiquities Act – the law used to originally set aside the lands – was abused and reducing the monuments was necessary to wrest control away from Washington bureaucrats and return it to the locals.
“These abuses of the Antiquities Act give enormous power to faraway bureaucrats at the expense of the people who actually live here, work here, and make this place their home,” Trump said during his speech in Utah announcing the reductions.
Opponents argue local control arguments are a ruse designed to distract from the real purpose of the reductions: paving the way for natural resource extraction industries like mining, oil and gas and cattle grazing.
Nicole Croft, executive director of Partners of Grand Staircase Escalante, said the BLM’s recently minted plan for reduction does the least to conserve the antiquities that led to the monument’s designation in the first place.
“It’s also the plan most conducive to extractive industries,” Croft said.
Grand Staircase hasn’t earned the headlines enjoyed by its more famous neighbor Bears Ears National Monument, which was reduced via the same executive order.
Bears Ears was designated in 2016 by Barack Obama as he was winding down his presidency, meaning the fight over that designation has more immediacy and relevance to national headline writers trying to frame the reduction as Trump attempting to unspool Obama’s legacy.
But there is arguably more at stake at Grand Staircase, with its recently removed lands dappled with active mining claims for cobalt, copper and uranium.
A recent report compiled by the Utah Geological Survey, however, found many such deposits are not viable for development in current economic conditions.
“There is a limited industrial minerals potential,” said Michael Vanden Berg, author of the Mineral Potential Report solicited by the BLM for its planning purposes.
But Croft and other environmentalists say the viability of the mines is contingent on current economic conditions, and that removing protections mean that future spikes of any or all of the minerals could attract prospectors.
While the minerals report downplayed most of the potential mining sites, it highlighted the immediate feasibility of mining of a huge coal seam running underneath the Kaiparowits Plateau along the monument’s southern border.
The seam contains about 9 billion tons of coal.
“It is by far the largest coal field in the state of Utah,” said Vanden Berg.
While Utah is shuttering coal plants and domestic demand for the greenhouse gas-laden fuel remains depressed, a clamor for more coal in Asia could render the coal field a viable economic enterprise, according to the minerals report. That has environmentalists worried about the ecological integrity of the monument.
Added to the chorus of mining opponents are business owners who depend on the blossoming recreation economy for their income.
“If the monument is degraded it will have an extremely negative effect on the local economy,” said Susan Hand, the co-owner of Willows Canyon, an outdoor store in Kanab, Utah, on the southwestern fringe of the monument. “So there is a lot at risk.”
But others say the recreation industry needs to learn how to coexist with more traditional industries that rely on western lands.
Mike Noel, a former Utah legislator and vocal supporter of the monument reduction, wants to see the coal field on the Kaiparowits mined.
“The tourist industry has been good for this area, no question,” he said. “But it’s also brought a lot of people with these wacky ideas that no one else can make a living.”
The environmental fights over natural resource extraction in ecologically pristine areas used to hinge on moral arguments with environmentalists touting the value of unspoiled places, nature and wildlife and industry appealing to the need to create jobs and wealth.
Increasingly, environmental fights are economic ones – no less so at Grand Staircase.
Big Business in the Great Outdoors
In 2016, outdoor recreation generated $412 billion, 2.2% of the national GDP, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Mining contributed $321 billion to the national economy in 2017, 1.7% of the GDP.
The bureau won’t provide a breakdown of the recreation economy by state until next month, but the Outdoor Industry Association says outdoor recreation produced $12.3 billion in annual consumer spending in the Beehive State alone.
The sector produces about 110,000 jobs, contributing $3.9 billion in wages and salaries, according to the group’s economic analysis.
The analysis is bolstered by the state’s own economic assessment.
According to the recent Utah Economic Summary, produced for the state by the University of Utah, the natural resource extraction industry – including mining – accounts for about 2.8% of the state GDP, compared to 3.2% for leisure and hospitality, which in Utah almost entirely involves outdoor experiences.
In terms of jobs, the numbers are similar if not more tilted in favor of recreation. Natural resource extraction jobs accounted for 0.6% of the jobs held in Utah during the first quarter of 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. Meanwhile, leisure and hospitality jobs comprise 10% of its labor market.
But not everyone is convinced the statistics present a full and accurate picture.
Noel, the former Utah lawmaker, said burdensome government regulation makes it impossible for natural resources to command a higher percentage of GDP and jobs.
“From a market perspective, the only reason coal is in trouble is because of environmental regulations,” he said.
Others near the monument say they have witnessed mining industries that used to support thriving towns legislated out of existence.
Guy Finicum said the once-thriving town of Freedonia, Arizona, is a mere semblance of its former self after logging company Kaibab Industries went out of business.
“When Kaibab Industries shut down a couple of years ago it absolutely devastated the community of Freedonia,” he said, adding Freedonia is having trouble keeping its high school open and many of the families still living in the area are on government assistance.
“It used to be that the residents of Freedonia produced taxes for this state and now we just consume them,” Finicum said.
If Finicum’s name sounds familiar, it’s because his brother LaVoy Finicum was shot and killed by Oregon state troopers in the aftermath of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge – one of the watershed events in the ongoing and increasingly contentious debate over the use of public lands in the American West.
Guy Finicum said he doesn’t share the pure idealism of his brother, but understands that many of the ranchers near the monument were financially harmed by the designation. He also believes the political nature of its timing stoked resentment.
“Bill Clinton used it before the election to make environmentalists happy and to get back at people who weren’t going to vote for him,” he said.
Clinton designated Grand Staircase at the height of his re-election campaign in 1996. He announced the designation in Grand Canyon National Park, across the border in Arizona – a perceived slight to Utah that his considerable contingent of detractors in and around the monument have not forgotten.
Hand, the co-owner of the outdoor store, said the monument has room for ranching as long as it’s done responsibly. But mining and recreation cannot coexist, she said.
“Coal mining is not viable anymore, either economically or environmentally,” she said.
Instead, the small business owner points to the profusion of hotels, restaurants and shops that have appeared in the last 25 years, all thanks to access to the type of outdoor recreation she said is imperiled by mining and monument reductions.
“Our economy has improved since the monument came,” Hand said. “Our median income has increased, not decreased.”
Data from the two counties sharing the monument back up Hand. In 2006, the median household income in Garfield County was about $44,700 and about $43,000 in Kane County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2017, those numbers had climbed to $51,700 for Garfield County and approximately $50,000 for Kane.
The profusion of hotels in Kanab, Escalante and Boulder is undeniable and the newness of the amenities is visible from the curb. Restaurants, shops and outdoor guide businesses line the streets of the modest downtown areas of each town.
But Noel said the economy could be even better if it were diversified to include other industries.
The median household income in both counties is $15,000 less than that of Utah as a whole, which sits at a respectable $65,000.
“I’m a multiple-use guy when it comes to public lands,” Noel said. “We have to be careful with our environment and make sure the trails and roads are open to people. But we don’t have to set aside every single acre.”
Peek-a-boo & Spooky
Driving from the Kaiparowits to the northern part of Grand Staircase, where the impossibly narrow slot canyons proliferate, Calf Creek winds through a verdant desert oasis as beautiful as Zion and the others in Utah’s high desert. It’s a three-hour drive on the highway, Grand Staircase unfurling leftward into the desert all the while.
The distances at the Grand Staircase emphasize themselves with faraway mesas and expansive canyons falling away from the roads.
The morning after the midnight encounter with the coyote at, I rose early and hiked through Peek-a-boo and Spooky slot canyons, one of the most spectacular natural corridors in the region.
After emerging from the contortions of Peek-a-boo I met Gabriel Frame, his sister Mikaela, Madeline Metras and Griffin Bleaker – four college students who were navigating the canyon system just in the opposite direction.
They told me that right as the canyon narrowed so tightly that they had to twist their bodies to proceed, they encountered something that sent them reeling in the opposite direction.
“We just got past the narrow part and we saw this huge snake,” Bleaker said. “Not sure if it was a rattler but we decided to turn around.”
It was a rattlesnake, a local guide later confirmed, underscoring the prudence of turning around.
For the group, the snake sighting punctuated a week’s worth of adventures in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The group spent most of their time backpacking among the sinuous sandstone gorges that feed the Escalante River.
“It’s so beautiful here,” said Gabriel Frame. “Every canyon seems to be formed of a different kind of rock and there’s the right amount of people,” Frame said.
But group also came to the national monument for another reason.
“We were vaguely aware of Grand Staircase because of Trump,” Gabriel Frame said.
It’s a common sentiment.
“I meet a lot of people who come here to see it while it’s still here,” said Jeremiah Webb, an outdoor guide living in Kanab. “You have to enjoy it before it disappears.”