Days ago, Garfield County joined with its neighbors Kane and San Juan counties seeking to join the lawsuits challenging President Donald Trump’s orders to bring national monument decrees affecting federal lands in our counties into compliance with federal law and good sense. We are represented by Mountain States Legal Foundation, which is providing its legal services pro bono.
It is essential that the federal court hear from the people on the receiving end of the edict issued by President Bill Clinton, that is, our hard-pressed constituents. We are grateful to the legal foundation because, given our economic situation, there is no other way we could afford to seek legal redress. That we are in these circumstances because of the action taken by Clinton is beyond question.
On June 22, 2015, the Garfield County Commission unanimously voted to declare that our south-central Utah county, which is the size of Connecticut, is in a state of emergency. It wasn’t because of a 200-year flood, out-of-control wildfires, a historic blizzard or some other natural disaster. It was the bitter fruit of 20 years of economic decline following the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996.
Earlier, our school district superintendent, Ben Dalton, approached us with troubling data on declining current and projected school enrollment across Garfield County. In 1997, the year after Clinton’s announcement, the student enrollment in our district was 1,178. By August 2015, Dalton anticipated a total enrollment of 878. While a decrease of 292 students over 18 years might not sound disastrous in many communities, it is a catastrophe for us.
For example, in 2015, Bryce Valley High School had 128 students; Panguitch High School had 149 students. Thus, in the last 18 years we have effectively lost the entire student population of our district’s two largest high schools. In 2017, there were 909 students in our county’s schools, but Escalante High School had only 65 students.
How can a high school offer parents and students in Escalante an educational curriculum that compares with other Utah high schools, let alone high schools across the country? This says nothing about the absence of activities such as athletics, 4-H, drama and speech and ROTC. Escalante High School cannot even field a football team.
But why is student enrollment in our county an emergency? One reason: Garfield County’s once vibrant and prosperous economy, which relied on the responsible multiple use of natural resources from the federal lands that surround us, is gone. After all, federal land makes up 93 percent of the county, and it was there, ever since our ancestors arrived in Utah, that ranchers grazed livestock — sheep and cattle; loggers harvested timber and millworkers processed it into lumber to build homes in faraway places; miners dug low-sulfur, high-heating coal to generate electricity in California; and energy companies explored for oil and gas. These businesses did so responsibly in full compliance with federal and state environmental laws, and as they did they provided good-paying, year-round jobs in Garfield County.
All that is gone now. Because of the 1.9 million-acre national monument, the agencies that administer these lands eliminated most grazing and all logging, mining and energy exploration and production. It also severely restricted access for any use other than tourism by the most hardy and well-heeled.
Environmental groups and outsiders made rosy predictions about the impact of the national monument on the local economy. They said tourism and related service jobs would replace the multiuse industries that have been our county’s economic lifeblood for over 130 years. That was pure fantasy. It never happened. Families whose connection to Utah went back five generations could not survive on seasonal tourism jobs. So they left and they took their children with them. Those who were able to remain face the prospect that their children — who had to leave southern Utah to find decent-paying jobs — will never return. Finally, the prospect of working at low-paying jobs as part of a short seasonal tourism economy has not attracted new residents.
Last December, Trump, on the recommendation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, issued a proclamation reducing the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by 876,598 acres. If successful, the president’s compassionate and principled action represents a unique opportunity to alleviate the worst of the impacts on our constituents, their families and communities that were caused by the original declaration in 1996. The return of responsible multiple use to some of the federal lands in Garfield County gives us hope for the first time in a long time, which is why we strongly support the president’s proclamation and why we have sought to enter the lawsuits challenging his action.
We aren’t seeking to advance an agenda on public lands in Utah or the rest of the country. We are simply fighting for the future of the brave people we are privileged to represent and to relieve the cause of their suffering. We need economic activity and jobs that support families and permit people to raise their children here. Only access to the federal lands that predominate around us will assure us of that ability. Without that access, more businesses will close forever, more homes will be shuttered as the families leave and more of our communities will become 21st-century ghost towns. As long as we are able, we must fight against such a sad and unnecessary future.