New monuments met with mixed feelings


Mar 11, 2001
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New monuments met with mixed feelings

John Heilprin, The Deseret News


Grand Staircase emerging as case study for parks

ESCALANTE — Hardy critters like the Kanab ambersnail, the Southwestern willow flycatcher and retired farmer Melvin Alvey are drawn to the red rock desert by an austerity furrowed by wind and water and a stillness blessed by what isn't here.

European tourists and Utah residents enjoy themselves in the Escalante River at the Calf Creek recreation area along U-12 between Boulder and Escalante. The area is now a "must-see" site on most maps.Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

     Alvey, 94, however, bemoans the changes taking place — the biggest ones since Mormons began settling here in 1875 — simply because the vast acreage that is his backyard has a new name: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

     "At one time, everybody had a little bunch of cattle and a farm," he explains, aided by an oxygen cylinder and occasional interjections from Florence, his wife of nearly 50 years. "It was just like a big family. Everybody cared for everybody, and helped them. Now, why, it's altogether different."

     As dominant as the 1.9 million-acre monument is in southern Utah, Grand Staircase-Escalante casts an even larger shadow over the debate on use of federal lands. It is a prototype for other vast land monuments being planned and, to Western Republicans, a symbol of federal intrusion.

     President Clinton six years ago invoked the 1906 Antiquities Act to "maintain the unspoiled nature" of the desert swath nearly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. It took no action from Congress or consultation with Utah officials.

     Before leaving office, Clinton designated another 3.7 million acres as national monuments, making them off limits to mining, logging, grazing and other potentially damaging uses.

     Western Republicans do not want any more presidents to enjoy that power. For weeks they have searched for votes in the House to pass a bill specifying that any presidential declaration of a monument would expire in two years if Congress does not approve it.

     The Bush administration is sending mixed signals on what it wants to do with such areas.

     On the one hand, it is moving to allow oil and gas drilling on federal land near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah despite protests from some park rangers and government scientists. But it also began studying in May whether to create another national monument at Utah's San Rafael Swell, north of Escalante.

     With a nod to Escalante, Interior Secretary Gale Norton kicked off the process by writing land management plans in April for half the 22 monuments Clinton created or expanded. She emphasizes gathering local opinion, a step that critics of the Clinton administration say was not emphasized enough before.

Cattle rancher Dell LeFevre, a commissioner of Garfield County, home of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, poses outside the fashionable Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder.John Heilprin, Associated Press

     "In some areas, there are existing uses that need to be taken into account. In other areas, there may be a fairly quick shift to a tourist type of economy," Norton said in an interview. "Some of the areas are fairly receptive to that idea. Other areas view the monument design as an intrusion on their traditional lifestyles."

     There is no doubt that the traditional way of life in Escalante is giving way to tourist dollars.

     Former Grand Canyon guides Drew and Julia Cozby opened Escalante Outback Adventures, lured by the monument's newfound fame. Tom Mansell pulled up stakes in Ipswich, Mass., to build Escalante's Grand Staircase Bed & Breakfast Inn, drawn by the chance to get in on what he calls "the ground floor" of a new economy.

     Tensions between old and new surface sometimes at town meetings.

     "I can remember one woman vividly saying that we need new jobs, but we don't want our kids flipping burgers and serving ice cream," Mansell said. "I said to that woman, 'Unless you get out and do something, you're going to be working for me, flipping my burgers and serving my ice cream, because you don't want to get out and take a chance.' They've been entrenched so long in doing the same thing, that they're afraid."

Melvin Alvey, 94, and his wife Florence, 83, face big changes in their hometown of Escalante. The new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is nearby and poses problems for ranchers. John Heilprin, Associated Press

     In nearby Boulder, the largest employer is now an upscale organic restaurant, Hell's Backbone Grill, targeting affluent travelers on the grounds of equally chic Boulder Mountain Lodge.

     Co-owners Jen Castle and Blake Campbell, both transplants from Flagstaff, Ariz., and practicing Buddhists, emphasize locally produced food, pay their staff of 27 higher wages than most other jobs in town and try to impart new skills, too.

     Their reception in the Mormon town was initially frosty, but their style of business and tasty regional cuisine bridged the cultural gaps. Even Garfield County Commissioner Dell LeFevre, one of the few remaining cattle ranchers in the area, is a regular.

     "For us, if the monument didn't exist, we couldn't do what we're doing. We need a certain kind of people, who come to Boulder, for the style of food we're doing," said Campbell.

     LeFevre, who has 14 adopted children to worry about, says he considers himself a good ol' cowboy and an environmentalist. He agreed to swap grazing rights with an environmental land trust to protect 18,000 acres of the upper Escalante River.

     Still, he says he is $1 million in debt — a quarter of that from adoptions — but it is depressed beef prices and extended drought ruining him faster than new grazing restrictions.

     "You can't blame the monument for everything. I'd like to," said LeFevre, flashing a sly grin, "but you can't." Moments later, he added more somberly: "I see my world going away."
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