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Does Garfield County have a future? Student numbers tell troubled story

SHARE Does Garfield County have a future? Student numbers tell troubled story

PANGUITCH, Garfield County — “I worry for my community."

So said 84-year-old Garfield County resident Maloy Dodds, who has lived in Panguitch for a lifetime.

His cattle business has been in his family for more than 150 years. Now, his son Wally has taken over the ranch — his grandson Makoy, 17, is next in line — but with each passing generation, Dodds has seen how his community and other neighboring towns have changed. He remembers a time when timber, mining and ranching industries flourished, and families remained tight-knit, strong.

But of Dodds’ seven children, only one has stayed. The others moved north or out of state in search of work.

The Dodds family is not unlike many others in Garfield County who have split or migrated away seeking more opportunity. In fact, county officials fear their communities are being reshaped, losing a once robust family presence.

That transition has now reached a possible crisis point in the Garfield School District. Over the past 18 years, district enrollment has consistently declined, losing nearly 300 students. One school in particular, Escalante High School, is now down from 150 students in 1996 to about 50.

That’s why Garfield County Commission members considered a resolution this week to declare a state of emergency for loss of students.

"This is a big issue," said Commissioner David B Tebbs. "You lose a school, you lose the heart and soul of that community."

If the district closes any school, it could be the final push to send one of its towns over the edge of decline, said Commission Chairman Leland Pollock, because without a school, no family would have the desire to settle in that town and make a living.

"It's part of our culture, our heritage," Pollock said. "Our communities were founded by the strong family unit. Without the family, you're not going to have schools, and if you lose the school, you lose the community."

That's why it's the commission's top priority to keep all of the county's schools open, Pollock said. But that task is challenging, because Ben Dalton, superintendent of Garfield County School District, said three of the county's largest high schools — Panguitch, Bryce Valley and Escalante — are now functioning under a budget that would normally operate only one.

Dalton said with dwindling student numbers, programs are suffering. Currently, only four full-time teachers teach at Escalante High School, and the school doesn't have enough students to offer AP classes.

But Escalante resident Heather Dunton said she doesn't care whether Escalante has 50 or 150 students, she just hopes the school stays open for the sake of her two daughters, Mazee, 9, and McCall, 7. Dunton said she grew up in Escalante, and she intends to allow her children the same opportunity.

"The thought of having to home-school my children or send them on a bus all day long is a scary thought," Dunton said. "Our children shouldn't suffer because we have low numbers."

Dodds feared if Escalante loses its high school, Panguitch might eventually face a similar fate.

"Take the school out of the community, and you might as well bury it," Dodds said. "I don't have any idea how to save Escalante, and Panguitch could be right behind it."

Tourism isn't enough

Pollock said the low student numbers reflect an even larger problem: the county’s two-decade struggle ever since the inception of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, which he said "locked up" 93 percent of the county as federal land, including 65 percent of Utah's coal reserve.

"We demand help," Pollock said. "This is a problem that we did not create."

Before the monument was created, natural resource extraction industries flourished, said Tropic resident Gayle Pollock, whose family has lived in Garfield County for five generations. His ancestors worked in the saw mills, which would employ hundreds.

But now, federal restrictions have reduced job opportunities to government and seasonal tourism, which Gayle Pollock said doesn't provide the stable work men and women need to support their families, unlike the natural resource jobs that were once abundant in Garfield County.

"Those are the jobs that will get our schools to be where they need to be and provide economic stability," Gayle Pollock said. "The notion that tourism will be our savior in Garfield is just that, a notion. It's a red herring."

However, groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance have pushed to preserve public lands in federal hands to prevent environmental impact, privatization or development.

Additionally, Chris Mehl of Headwaters Economics said protected public lands like national parks can play a beneficial economic role for rural communities.

According to Headwaters Economics studies, overall population and income per capita have increased in Garfield County since the monument's creation, and 17 percent of the county's per capita income is attributable to the protected lands.

"Western counties with protected public lands, like national monuments, have been more successful at attracting fast-growing economic sectors and, as a result, grow more quickly, on average, than counties without protected public lands according to (our research)," Mehl said.

Escalante's population has declined by about 500 since the late 1990s to less than 800. Additionally, Mehl said, those studies have not looked at family size or social impacts.

"For long-term growth, their school system is certainly important," Mehl said.

Monday the County Commission voted unanimously to put forth a resolution supporting the transfer of public land from federal to state control. They joined multiple other rural Utah counties with similar resolutions.

"Unless we can find that common ground," Gayle Pollock said, "there's no future for our children."

Hopes to gain traction

Leland Pollock said the commission will be holding public hearings June 16 and 17 before members vote June 22 to decide whether to officially declare the state of emergency.

He said the commission needs all congressional delegation representatives present, and they're encouraging state representatives to attend. If they issue the state of emergency, they mean to capture attention of state and national leaders and demand help, Leland Pollock said.

"We want to engage the public and community because with this resolution," Tebbs said. "We don't want to cause panic, but we need to bring awareness."

Rep. Chris Stewart said Garfield County is local example of how rural communities nationwide are struggling with the same issue.

"It's tragic," Stewart said, adding that if Garfield County makes the declaration, it will be productive in the sense that it will draw attention. However, he said, it's difficult to predict what would happen next.

"We certainly want to help them and encourage them in any way," Stewart said. "But we want to see what's on their mind. We haven't had that conversation with them yet."

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said if county officials issue the declaration, the governor and the Utah Legislature would likely be notified that Garfield County requires immediate action.

"Hopefully this will be one more wake up call that will help bring us toward the critical mass that all leaders, local, state and national, will be relentless and unashamed and demand the basic fundamental right to liberty, property and right to govern ourselves," Ivory said.

"Some days it just seems like you're fighting a losing battle," Wally Dodds said, speaking of his cattle grazing industry's struggles. Running the farm without another form of income is not realistic, he said.

But Gayle Pollock said he's optimistic for the future.

"As long as we can get congressional delegation, the County Commission and citizens working together," he said, "I do feel like there's hope."

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com