U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke stopped in Kanab last Wednesday after touring parts of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with county commissioners from Kane and Garfield counties.
After his tour of the monument, he stopped at the Kanab airport where he met with reporters, while monument supporters — locked outside a security fence — shouted “Talk to us!” and “Save our monuments!”
Earlier in the week, Zinke met with Utah legislators and toured parts of the newly-designated Bears Ears National Monument as part of the Trump Administration’s decision to possibly rescind or shrink 27 of America’s national monuments. Of the 27 monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase are the biggest monuments being considered for what could be drastic changes.
Zinke encountered several rallies of monument supporters which posited that Zinke and the Trump Administration had already decided to reduce and rescind some or all of the monuments and have suggested that Zinke’s listening tour is nothing more than a political charade.
While meeting with reporters in Kanab last Wednesday, Zinke emphasized that neither the Trump Administration nor the Department of the Interior had reached a conclusion about the fate of the monuments.
“These are absolutely places that need to be protected,” Zinke told reporters at the Kanab Airport, “and that is our ultimate goal, to make sure the land is managed well.
“Everyone I’ve met loves the land,” Zinke continued. “Everyone wants to protect their culture and traditions. There are a lot of things we can do better.”
Zinke named eliminating invasive species and increasing the size of backcountry hiking groups as some of the changes he’d like to see happen at the monuments. Currently it’s capped at 12 people per group, which means large groups, such as Boy Scout troops, aren’t able to visit the area.
After four days touring Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase and visiting with numerous groups along the way, Zinke believes his listening tour was a success.
“I’m more optimistic leaving than I was when I came,” he said.
Zinke emphasized that he and the Department of the Interior are considering input from all parties involved from local governments, Native American nations, ranchers, business owners and recreationists.
“You’re voice matters to me,” he said.
But a group of 300 to 350 monument supporters — some of whom traveled from as far away as Escalante, Tropic and Boulder, Utah — expressed their concerns Wednesday that they don’t believe their voices are being given equal consideration. While Zinke was touring the Grand Staircase with a group of county commissioners and a paleontologist from the Bureau of Land Management, a group of pro-monument demonstrators gathered along Kanab’s main street.
Besides carrying signs expressing their desire to maintain Grand Staircase in its current state, eight environmentalists and tourism-related business owners delivered speeches that were addressed to Zinke but delivered to their fellow monument supporters, as Zinke was touring the monument at the time the rally was being held.
Across the street a solitary opposing protestor walked along the sidewalk with a misspelled signed reading, “Resind all monuments.”
The major concern among the Grand Staircase supporters is that the Trump administration will reduce the monument’s borders and open the newly opened land to coal mining, which they believe will be damaging to the landscape, and as a direct result, damaging to area tourism.
One of the speakers was Blake Spalding, co-owner of Hell’s Backbone Grill and Farm, and the Boulder Mountain Lodge, a world-famous organic restaurant and hotel in Boulder, Utah.
She expressed concern that her patrons will be less interested in visiting her restaurant and lodge if the Grand Staircase becomes damaged in any way.
“If they minimize the monument, it will be a disaster for our business,” she said. “If people’s perception of the monument is that it’s been harmed, they’ll stay away. They’ll find a place that hasn’t been damaged.”
Spalding has seen her business income double since 2008 and grow 20 percent every year for the last three years.
“It’s not just us,” she said. “There isn’t a business in the entire county that isn’t hiring right now. And if you want to build, there’s a two-year wait for contractors. The idea that tourism isn’t good business is ludicrous.”
According to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute Analysis of Utah State Tax Commission Data, Kane County’s total gross leisure and hospitality taxable sales in 2015 were $93.5 million, which generated $2.9 million in tax revenue for Kane County. Garfield County, which contains many of the tourist towns on the Grand Staircase’s northern border, had a total gross leisure and hospitality taxable sales of $78.4 million, which generated $2.6 million in tax revenue for Garfield County.
In 2015, the state of Utah saw direct visitor spending of $8.17 billion and generated a record $1.15 billion in total tax revenue.
Christa Sadler, a geologist and paleontologist who has done extensive field work inside Grand Staircase, said losing such treasures just to get at some coal beds would be a national travesty.
“Dozens of new species of dinosaurs and other ancient creatures and plants have been discovered there,” she said. “The fossils from this monument have proven to be of global significance, and scientists have only begun to scratch the surface of what is out there.”
But not everyone who lives in or near the monument wants to keep it. Among them is David Tebbs, a Garfield County commissioner who traveled with Zinke during his tour of the Grand Staircase.
“We want productive, healthy land,” Tebbs said, “but the monument designation makes it harder for us to do that. Look, if the Grand Staircase gets shrunk it will still remain under the protection of the Bureau of Land Management. Under the monument status, and all the paperwork that comes with it, it really slows things down and makes it difficult to get projects through. The field office can move faster and more efficiently than the monument office.”
The Department of the Interior wants your input and comments about whether you’d like to see America’s national monuments remain the same, get reduced in size or be rescinded altogether. You can express your opinion on the matter at regulations.gov. The comment period closes July 10, 2017.