A dusk-time view of Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Photo by the Bureau of Land Management and used under the CC BY 2.0 license.

Abundant turkey habitat might not be the most common image associated with the deserts of Southern Utah, but Jay Banta of nearby Torrey, Utah, has had good luck with the birds at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

“It’s a stunningly beautiful area of redrock canyons and mature cottonwood forests along the creeks, and there’s abundant birds all up and down the places where there’s a constant flow of water,” Banta said.

Like many in the rural West, Banta considers access to the region’s public land an important part of his community. “There’s been an astronomical increase in economic activity because of the monument,” Banta said. “And while some of the locals in the area might say that it’s new people moving to the region starting up those businesses, I say that it’s good that somebody is taking advantage of the entrepreneurial opportunities all of that increased tourism brings to the area. That opportunity is there for whoever wants to take it.”

Grand Staircase-Escalante, created in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, is one of many National Monuments currently under administrative review by the Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke. The review is to consider recommendations of size and management changes within the federal lands like Grand Staircase. While Zinke released the executive summary of his report in time to meet the deadline imposed by President Trump’s Executive Order calling for the monument review, the details of proposed Trump administration changes were virtually nonexistent.

Exactly how large the proposed changes are to three monuments remains an open question. Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, issued a Freedom of Information Act Request to obtain the full document.

“If Secretary Zinke wants to redraw the maps for millions of acres of public land, he should at least be transparent and honest with the Western communities who will be impacted by his actions,” Saeger said in a written statement. “He is opening the door for special interests to run the show on Western public lands while leaving our communities in the dark.”

Jay Banta on a turkey hunt in Missouri. Photo via the St. George (Utah) News.

Chris Mehl of Headwaters Economics has been tracking the economic performance of rural communities in the West. He said that while there’s not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship between National Monuments and thriving rural economies, “Monuments appear to be a positive tool. There’s clearly no evidence that National Monuments discourage or hinder economic growth. In most cases, the monuments provide an opportunity to diversify the economy into more service jobs, government sector jobs on the monument, and maybe in bringing in needed infrastructure.”

That economic diversity can help provide balance in rural communities, said Mehl, when prices for agricultural products and revenues from mining or logging decrease. “The rural economy of the West has changed. We can see clearly, from tracking the communities around the monuments over a period of time, that county’s had expanded economic activity. The economic indicators we track–that’s population, jobs and employment, personal income, and per-capita income–increased after creation of the monuments.”

The area around Grand Staircase is a good example, he said. “In the very rural Garfield and Kane Counties, where the Grand Staircase is located, there’s been a 42% increases in jobs since 2001, primarily in the service sector from health care and tourism.

“Headwaters Economics reports that from 2001 to 2015, in the Grand Staircase-Escalante Region:

  • Population grew by 13%.
  • Real personal income grew by 32%.
  • Jobs grew by 24%.
  • Real per capita income grew by 17%.

Also during that period, service sector jobs grew from 3,916 to 5,561 jobs, while non-services shrank from 1,057 to 1,027 jobs, a 3% decrease.

National Monument designation is one tool that presidents have used since Teddy Roosevelt to wade into the land management debate, with authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Monument designation can be used for historic preservation, to save Native American cultural resources, to steer commercial development, and to limit the impact of activities such as mining. Protections are specific to each monument, and multi-use protections are the norm for the Western states’ largest monuments. Fifteen of the 17 on a Headwaters list of monuments allow grazing. Others allow existing timber harvest agreements to be honored. And most allow motorized vehicles, hunting, fishing, and other recreation use, and allow access to inholdings.

The Trump administration’s review of National Monuments is in response to critics who say federal land should prioritize energy production, timber harvesting, and grazing, along with other extractive uses.

With monument designation, rural communities often look to cash in on tourism as a critical economic driver. The outdoor recreation economy supports 7.6 million American jobs and $887 billion in consumer spending annually, according to the annual report from the Outdoor Industry Association. The industry generated $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue and $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue in 2016. The recreation economy is larger than key economic sectors of education, gasoline and fuels, motor vehicle, and pharmaceuticals.

Jay Banta likes what sees happening around his region. “You talk to the merchants in the area, they haven’t seen such busy times as this. Now, the monument does have its restrictions. They aren’t mining coal here. But that’s not because of the environmentalists and it’s not because of the tourists. That’s because of economic realities and natural gas. In the economy today, recreation and tourism is what we’ve got.
Banta, through Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, was part of a national collaboration between conservation and outdoor recreations groups. Their campaign helped to engage millions of Americans in commenting on proposed National Monument changes. One of the only details in Secretary’s Zinke initial announcement, in fact, related to the “well-orchestrated national campaign.” Of 2.7 million comments received in the process, 98% of participants favored no change to current monuments, and only 1% favoring shrinking or erasing monuments all together.

“What I think it says it that we did our jobs,” said Corey Fisher, senior policy director for Trout Unlimited. “Yes, there was a well-coordinated campaign to get America to speak out about how they feel about the monuments. We did our job and we delivered. Every one of those comments represents a real person taking the time and effort to discuss what monuments mean to them. And in this case, it shows how millions of Americans want to protect and conserve our public lands.”

“Getting rid of National Monuments is wildly unpopular,” said Aaron Weiss of the Center for Western Priorities, pointing to the 98-1 comment ration. “The administration asks for public comment about reducing the size of monuments, the answer comes back unanimous, and now they’re trying the best they can to dismiss the opinion that came out of the process they designed in the first place.”

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