KANAB — As the debate over public lands management intensifies under the Trump administration, Grand Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears have become household names.
But there's another slice of land in Southern Utah that often flies under the radar: It’s called the Kanab Escalante Planning Area, or KEPA for short.
The KEPA lands encompass the nearly 900,000 acres that President Donald Trump removed from the original Grand Staircase in 2017. Since then, there has been broad concern over the new access that mining and oil and gas companies might have to lands formerly protected by the monument.
Those questions resurfaced last week when the Bureau of Land Management unveiled new management plans for the KEPA lands and what remains of Utah’s two national monuments.
But according to Harry Barber, who manages the planning area for the BLM, those fears are overblown.
“There’s been this misconception that automatically this gate opened up and coal trucks and oil trucks and other types of mining trucks are heading out there. And that’s not the case,” he said.
Barber said his agency hasn’t received much interest from energy companies since the new rules were introduced, and they don’t expect that to change.
But the bureau is forecasting a big uptick in another industry: recreation.
Under the new management plan, new activities such as mountain biking and competitive events will now be permitted in sections of the KEPA lands. Those were previously barred under the monument.
The BLM will also allow larger group sizes than before and build new facilities to handle the crowds like parking lots, bathrooms and trailheads.
It’s part of a plan to make the former monument zones more accessible to visitors.
A Recreation Boon
Like much of Southern Utah, tourism is booming in Kane County.
Leisure and hospitality jobs, which depend on new visitors coming to the area, have increased by more than 40% over the past decade — from 858 jobs in 2010 to 1,235 jobs in 2018. And it is now the sector that provides the most jobs in the county, according to data from the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
But Kane County tourism director Camille Johnson Taylor said that growth is a reflection of the rise in visitation across all of Southern Utah’s parks.
“People think that it’s more of a major tourism asset than it is,” she said, referring to the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
She added that the lands in the monument and KEPA are so rugged and remote that her office doesn’t advise tourists to go there without a guide.
Though new infrastructure from the BLM and looser regulations could potentially draw more visitors, not everyone sees that as a good thing.
A Contentious Past, An Uncertain Future
Susan Hand owns an outdoor gear shop in Kanab. She’s part of a local contingent of business owners and residents who want to see the monument’s original boundaries restored.
Hand said the downsizing of the monument two years ago, though celebrated by local officials and some longtime residents, introduced a lack of certainty over how the future of the monument would unfold.
She pushed back on the notion that the new management plans will provide more clarity.
“I have to laugh at that,” she said. “It’s been two years of tumult and that just continues in my mind. We don’t know where we’re headed.”
The presidential proclamation that redrew the monument’s boundaries still faces legal challenges in federal court. But the debate and controversy over national monument designation still rests on a flawed structure, says Val Hale, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
“This really should be a congressional action rather than a presidential designation,” he said. “Until that’s the case, [the monuments] will continue to be a political pawn.”