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Op-ed: The economic folly of rolling back Grand Staircase-Escalante

FILE - Grosvenor Arch, Escalante National Monument, Grand Staircase on September 14, 2003. The Utah Senate gave final legislative approval Wednesday to a resolution calling for reducing the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designat
FILE - Grosvenor Arch, Escalante National Monument, Grand Staircase on September 14, 2003. The Utah Senate gave final legislative approval Wednesday to a resolution calling for reducing the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designated more than 20 years ago by then-President Bill Clinton.
Deseret News

President Trump has peddled his recently announced plan to shrink the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with the claim that he wants local businesses to have more say-so on how the land is used.

For the president, Secretary of Interior Zinke, Congressman Rob Bishop and others who have knives out for Grand Staircase-Escalante, however, only one kind of business seems to matter — coal mining.

Based on their statements and actions, politicians hollering to shrink the monument believe the following: If you make your living serving visitors to the monument — hikers, hunters, anglers, birders, climbers, mountain bikers and others — you don’t count. The dollars those visitors are bringing to your community don’t count. The economic development the monument is stimulating is not a priority.

Step aside, healthy tourism and recreation businesses, so politicians can trade away the unique Utah attractions that bring your customers to town, and provide reliable economic growth, for the joys of boom-and-bust coal mining — only without the boom.

In today’s energy market, a coal boom is just not in the cards. Coal demand is driven by markets, not by the whims and schemes of politicians.

Production of coal, which is used primarily to generate electricity, has fallen by more than one-third over the last 10 years because coal is losing out to the competition — cheap and abundant natural gas, clean renewable resources like solar and wind, and the dollar savings that consumers and businesses earn from using energy more efficiently.

No matter how favorably President Trump, Rob Bishop or the special interests they cater to view coal mining, the future of coal appears bleak. Coal production, here in the West and across the U.S., will never regain the peak it reached in the first decade of the 21st century. That reality, according to analysts at the U.S. Energy Information Administration, will not change even if the Trump administration is successful in killing the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.

Utilities plan capital spending on power plants that last decades and will be generating power long after the president and his allies have left office. Utility CEOs are going to base their investments on economics, not on populist political pandering.

Coal-fired power plants are shutting down across the U.S., but outdoor recreation is running strong. Visitors come from all over the world to enjoy Grand Staircase-Escalante’s one-of-a-kind scenery and experience uncrowded, unspoiled nature. Businesses that supply, feed and accommodate monument visitors show growing sales and higher incomes.

The successful recreation economy that has grown up in Garfield County because of Grand Staircase-Escalante is a story echoed by many other communities in the U.S. All types of recreation — from camping to snow sports, from trail riding to wildlife watching — generate $887 billion in consumer spending each year, the Outdoor Industry Association estimates.

A dollar created by selling guide services to hunters and fishermen is just as green as a dollar earned from selling coal. Why, then, would politicians favor shrinking a spectacularly picturesque national monument that has drawn visitors across the globe to Garfield County, and endanger the tourism economy that has grown in its wake? Why would they instead place a bad economic bet on mining a polluting fuel that is so obviously on the decline?

The only explanation that makes sense is the monument’s detractors have a knee-jerk, ideological hostility to conservation, and hold to a use-it-up-now mentality that gives short shrift to saving for the future and protecting our children’s inheritance.

There is nothing conservative about such shallow thinking. As Theodore Roosevelt said in a 1907 message to Congress: “To waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them.”

Keeping Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument as it is would live up to TR’s ideals and fit with traditionally conservative ideas of prudent stewardship. It will be good for business — and good for our grandchildren.

Philip Carlson is a lifelong Republican and active member of the Salt Lake County GOP. He has also served in leadership roles with LDS Earth Stewardship, Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship and the Bicycle Collective.