ESCALANTE — The Highway 12 corridor between Escalante and Boulder, a sweeping landscape of wind-carved and uplifted redrock, has been Mark Austin’s entrepreneurial workshop for nearly half a century.
He built the Boulder Mountain Lodge and world-renown Hell’s Backbone Grill before the region became an attraction as the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. He organized local ranchers to produce organic beef. He’s primarily a builder now.
And he had envisioned more growth — more rooms and a conference center for his new lodge on the western edge of Escalante. But on a chilly day last December, Austin said he was putting that idea on hold.
“I’ve had plans to build more,” said Austin. “Now I’m a little reluctant and nervous to wait and see what happens.”
His hesitation stemmed from the stroke of a pen two days earlier — Dec. 4, 2017 — when President Donald Trump had signed a proclamation at the State Capitol. In doing so, Trump carved 2 million acres from two national monuments in southern Utah’s redrock country — half from here at the Grand Staircase-Escalante and the other half at Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County to the east.
Even before that day, a group of business owners in the Grand Staircase-Escalante region had been struggling to get the attention of state and federal leaders. But they were unsuccessful.
They had hoped to explain the downside of shrinking the monuments. The business community, including the Boulder-Escalante Chamber of Commerce, wanted to share its vision of a local economy based on the beauty and wildness of southern Utah.
Trump’s signature opened the door for new mining and energy development, and overlooked the lasting value of protected landscapes in Kane and Garfield counties. In their view, the president’s decision reflected a disconnect from reality about the healthy coexistence between the local economy and the original national monument.
Austin’s new lodge has a prime location just across Highway 12 from the welcome center the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has built for monument visitors.
It’s eight rooms look out upon a spectacular vista: striped layers of geological time stretching across the horizon, interrupted by the Escalante Canyon.
People get fired up about the area because it is so vast and rich — with dinosaur fossils and backcountry hikes, with fascinating geology and canyon climbing spots, with living ranches and pioneer-era homesteads.
“The reason it becomes passionate is because this landscape is powerful,” he said. “It’s beautiful - beauty that you can feel. It’s tangible. And to be able to live here. It’s remarkable. And when other visitors come here, it impacts them the same way.”
While some local residents and other Utahns cheered Trump’s move, a group of local business owners has joined the legal fight to restore the original boundaries to the monuments. Since visiting Austin last December, KUER has returned to the region over the past year to speak with him and another pro-monument business owner, Susan Hand, as they wait to learn the monuments’ fate. A few other local residents shared their view along the way.
In the four months since Trump shrunk the monuments, his administration has fast-tracked the process for remaking the Grand Staircase-Escalante.
After the monument was originally created in 1996, stakeholders worked with the BLM for four years to develop the current management plan. The Trump administration had a goal of finishing the new plan within a year.
At a BLM open house at Kanab High School, Tony Chelewski, a member of the Kane County Resource Board, says he’s was pleased with Trump’s decision to shrink the 22-year-old Grand Staircase-Escalante. In Chelweski’s view, the changes would mean fewer restrictions on energy, ranching and rural roads, as well as more local jobs.
“As this [planning process] squares away, you're going to see the people grow alfalfa and those kinds of things get back into the line to do good again and start making money again,” said Chelewski, a retiree wearing a cowboy hat.
For Utahns like Chelewski, Trump’s move had less to do with economics than history and local pride. That’s because the sting has never worn off for some Utahns about the way the monument was created 1996.
In their view, President Bill Clinton hadn’t bothered to loop in locals or state officials when creating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Some still say, the Democratic president was so cowardly, he signed the proclamation at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The scene remains a defining moment in the Culture Wars of West.
“It was a slap in the face,” said Hal Hamblin, another resource board member and retired teacher from a local ranching family. “To the people of Utah and the Western states, it was a land grab for political reasons.” “
But that changed with Trump’s action.
"And when we finally had a government come in and said, ‘We're going to shrink the size of this because it's too big, it was a land grab,’ it put a little confidence in our government back into small rural town America.”
Kanab businesswoman Susan Hand understands that lingering bitterness about Clinton’s monument declaration. But she says it’s time to shift focus toward what’s happening with the local economy now.
“As a business owner and a member of the economic community here in Kanab, the problem is that for the 21 years we've had the monument, we've built an economy based on the monument, and now it's being taken away from us,” Hand said. “It's an economic disaster coming if they don't manage this well, and I don't trust them to manage it well.”
According to an analysis by the Montana-based think tank Headwaters Economics, government data show the area’s economy humming in the two decades after the monument’s creation. Together, Kane and Garfield counties added 2,033 people and more than 2,466 jobs. Between 1996 and 2016, per capita income grew by 37.2 percent.
“I don’t know if our business would have survived without the monument,” Hand said, adding that 2017 was Willow Canyon’s busiest year ever.
Hand and her partner opened the store in 1994. The monument brought hotels, restaurants and guide services for visitors and other businesses like hers that benefit the entire community.
“We have a new pool; we have a new library; we have a new hospital – all these things have come in since the monument was proclaimed. I’m not going to say that the monument’s presence is entirely responsible for our economic growth, but it has not been an impediment,” Hand said.
Hand testified before Congress last December, when U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, presented a bill that echoes the boundary and management changes suggested by Trump. Like Austin, she’s also a member of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners in one of the lawsuits challenging the Trump monument reductions.
The tourist season was winding down just as the lawsuit began to get moving.
Having consolidated five lawsuits regarding the monument reductions earlier in the year, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected the Trump administration’s request to have the case moved to the federal court in Utah. Supporters and opponents began filing legal briefs on another Trump administration request — to have the judge dismiss the case — but a ruling isn’t expected for weeks or months.
Hand called the lawsuits a last resort for local business owners who’d never been able to get the meetings they’d requested with Gov. Gary Herbert, members of Congress and the Trump administration. Even Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who visited Kanab on a listening tour in 2017, declined to meet with the pro-monument business owners.
“I don’t care what office he holds,” said Hand, still frustrated. “I live here. I make my living here. I hike out on that land. The people who live in these communities are my neighbors and friends and customers. I’m a stakeholder, and I want a voice at the table, and I don’t feel I’ve been allowed that.”
For Mark Austin, those snubs are also an enduring grievance. He says his biggest problem has not been a sluggish economy, which state and county leaders complained about to the Trump administration. Austin’s experience has been that the economy is so strong, he can’t find the skilled labor he needs to keep his businesses running or even the unskilled labor, for that matter.
Austin said an unspoiled landscape is what decision-makers should be preserving, not the coal industry and mining that ruin the landscapes that draw people to the area.
Austin decided Escalante could use another fine dining facility opened the Devil’s Garden Grill next door to the lodge. It had a solid opening year, but in the fall, as the legal fight inched forward, he remained wary and kept his expansion plan for the lodge on hold.
“Oil wells, coal mines are not compatible with scenic vistas and tourism,” he said.
The fate of the monuments may not be decided for months — if not years — as the lawsuits challenging Trump’s monument decisions continue to make their way through the courts.
The question pending now before U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan is whether the president has the authority to remake national monuments. Lawyers for the Trump administration and its allies have asked the court to dismiss the lawsuits. A ruling isn’t expected until after final briefing papers come in next week.
Meanwhile, the new plans for managing the revised Grand Staircase and Bears Ears areas have generated hundreds of thousands of comments. Lisa Bryant, a spokeswoman for BLM in southern Utah, said the plans being developed are aimed at safeguarding cultural and natural resources while facilitating public access and traditional uses of the land.
Environmental groups had pressed the BLM to delay the plans while the lawsuits proceed. That’s because, if the judge rules against the Trump administration, the new management plans would no longer be valid in some parts of the monument and might not be valid in others.
Hand remains hopeful the monument boundaries will be restored.
“I don’t know for certain that it will go that way — none of us can really know — but that is my greatest hope,” she said, “and I expect that it’s a good possibility.”