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Utahns are finding a silver lining in monument cloud

One year ago, President Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt were hung in effigy here on the day that Clinton announced, from the safety of Arizona, the creation of the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

But one year after the new designation, which protects a Delaware-sized chunk of federal land in Utah, Escalante's Prospector Inn has had no vacancies on some nights, the lone waitress at the Cowboy Blues Diner has struggled to keep up with the crowded tables, and the number of tourists going through the federal government's visitors center here has jumped by 58 percent, to 21,699 for the first nine months of this year."People have come to terms with what happened - they now know the monument is here to stay," said Louise Liston, a Garfield County commissioner who was once one of the monument's most vocal opponents. "People are thinking about what the monument can do for them, instead of what the monument did to them."

The surprise pre-election announcement that the land would become a monument has led to three lawsuits against the federal government, helped Utah's Democrats lose their sole seat in Congress and earned Clinton the undying enmity of Utah's overwhelmingly Republican elected officials. The monument designation limits development on the land but is a step below a national park in the level of protection it provides.

Clinton's action is still having repercussions in Washington. The House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, recently voted to weaken the Antiquities Act, the 1906 law that Clinton used to designate the federal land as a monument on Sept. 18, 1996. The White House has also been issued a subpoena by the House Resources Committee for documents about the monument's creation.

Last year, Kanab, a desert town on the monument's southern edge, greeted Clinton's announcement by shuttering stores in mourning and releasing 50 black balloons as a warning to other states about abuses of presidential power. Dale Clarkson, a local developer, angrily dismissed the new park monument as offering fourth-class scenery.

Today, Clarkson is applying to monument-related projects the kind of industriousness that gave Utah its nickname, the Beehive State.

On the monument's first anniversary, a visitor to Clarkson's real estate office on East Center Street in Kanab found him poring over blueprints for a visitors center, a "deluxe" recreational-vehicle park, a luxury resort in a box canyon and a souvenir trading post catering to tour buses ("best toilets in town"). His new brochure for Deer Springs Ranch, a ranchette development, boasts that "it's just a short trip" to "the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument."

"We may have been aggravated by the way it came about," Clark-son said, "but it was government property to begin with - and it still is."

Ever since Utah became a state, in 1896, the federal government has owned about 90 percent of southeast Utah. Today, only 10,000 people live in Kane and Garfield counties, an area almost the size of Belgium.

For decades, people steered clear of the monument area, a baking, inhospitable expanse with place names that made it sound like Halloween in the desert: Spooky Gulch, Carcass Canyon, No Man's Mesa, Devil's Garden, Little Death Hollow and Harvey's Fear.

Still one of the most remote places in the nation, Escalante is a five-hour drive from the nearest city with a major airport: Salt Lake City, Phoenix or Las Vegas.

But now tourists are venturing into the area, guided by copies of a brand-new, 4-square-foot glossy map that was produced last summer by the monument's federal caretaker, the Bureau of Land Management. In the last year, the Sunday travel sections of virtually every major newspaper in the Rockies have carried articles featuring the monument's red rock landscape, with its slot canyons, natural arches, sandy washes and crumbling buttes.

"The other day, I pulled out a 65-year-old couple who had gotten their car stuck in the mud," said Lincoln Lyman, an Escalante native who grades the monument's dirt roads twice a year - once in the spring and once in the fall. "In years past, you might see one or two cars a day. Now there's a lot more traffic."

Initially, many people in the two counties wanted the main roads, which are dirt tracks in some cases, to be paved. Now many residents do not want the roads paved because they fear that tourists might simply speed through the area on their way to Lake Powell or Zion National Park.

"We don't want drive-by tourism," said Harriet Priska, a Californian who owns the Serenidad Gallery on West Main Street. Her growing sales reflect the soaring numbers recorded at the visitors center down the street.

"Every month since May has been the best month since we opened five years ago," Priska said on a recent Saturday, hours before holding a mortgage-burning party. Her husband, Philip, who specializes in selling old Western license plates, added: "The other day we had a busload of French tourists. In 10 minutes, they bought $100 worth of license plates."

Behind the change of heart in this town is a growing realization that the region's immediate economic future lies not with coal, oil or gas, but with tourism, modern Utah's largest economic activity. While Escalante's new tourism-and-second-home economy seems to be rumbling toward a takeoff, government regulations are curbing the region's ranching, mining and oil production.

Louise Liston and her husband, Robert, both descendants of pioneers, got so fed up with federal officials' changing the rules for ranching on public lands that they gave up most of their cattle and now raise ostriches on their own land. And even though the monument contains 11 billion tons of low-sulphur coal, a Dutch company gave up in January on an underground mine project, citing bureaucratic hurdles created by the new monument status.

The Bureau of Land Management recently gave Conoco a permit to drill an exploratory well here. But environmentalists, who lampoon the agency as the Bureau of Logging and Mines, are appealing that decision and have vowed to fight every permit application in the future.

"I'm an industry man, so I don't think we can live off tourism in the future," Lyman groused, noting that he had worked on recent projects around here to mine coal and zirconium and drill for oil. But Lyman tempered his criticism of a tourist economy, noting that his construction company had poured concrete foundations for many of the 30 new homes built in Escalante in the last year. In the last two years, land prices in this town have doubled.

A search for entrepreneurial opportunities since the advent of the new monument was a common theme voiced by residents who attended public meetings held in August in Escalante and six other villages that ring the vast monument.

"If you read the headlines in Utah, people are upset and angry, but if you attend the meetings, people are getting ahead with their lives, seeing what the opportunities are," said Scott Groene, a spokesman for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a group that fought for the monument status.

Groene, who attended Escalante's meeting, added: "The really shrill rhetoric you only hear from the politicians. And that rhetoric is 30 years old."