There are many endangered species in Utah: tortoises, owls, fish. The list goes on and on.
But what about endangered people? The National Association of Counties Thursday designated 10 Western communities - including Escalante in Garfield County - as endangered. And, the association says, it is the federal government that is threatening them with extinction.Salt Lake County Commissioner Mike Stewart, president of the national association, said all 10 communities are threatened because of federal rules and regulations designed to protect the environment, but which fail to consider the impact of those decisions on local communities.
"Escalante is a city that's going to die because it has lost its basis," Stewart said. "Just as you work to protect a species that's endangered, you also need to know there are communities that need protection."
Escalante, located in a county that is 85 percent federal land, is surrounded by designated or proposed wilderness areas, and by National Park Service lands. It's also a community dependent almost exclusively on the nearby federal forests for its economic survival.
For the most part, Escalante's survival is timber. But now that is threatened as environmentalists wanting to preserve southern Utah's old-growth forests challengetimber sales in court.
"The environmental regulations, the Endangered Species Act, the integral vista laws, the wilderness areas - they all just mow us down," said Sheldon Steed, an Escalante city councilman and an official with the Escalante Sawmill. "It's ridiculous. People's livelihoods are not a consideration. The communities are not a consideration. But they should be. We're talking real people with families who are affected most by those federal decisions."
The Escalante Sawmill recently laid off 30 employees, and more layoffs loom because of shortages of available timber. Most timber that is being offered for sale by the National Forest Service in southern Utah is under appeal by various environmental groups.
Escalante was one of 10 rural communities in the West designated as endangered as part of an attempt by the National Association of Counties and certain lawmakers to draw attention to the impact of federal environmental decisions on rural communities.
Other communities named to the list include Walden, Colo.; Horseshoe Bend, Idaho; Columbia Falls, Mont.; Jarbridge, Nev.; Reserve, N.M.; Williston, N.D.; Mill City, Ore.; and Cima and Weed, Calif.
"Escalante has a favorable climate, it has the access to the deserts and the mountains, it has minerals and oil reserves. It has timber, it has coal. It should be one of the up and coming communities in the West," said Garfield County Commissioner Sherrell Ott.
"But with all the environmental restrictions we're facing down here, Escalante is a community dying on the vine."
Ott admits the naming of Escalante to the list is, at best, a symbolic statement. "There's no difference between Escalante and the other communities down here," Ott said. "They are all endangered and dying for much the same reasons. They are all dying."
Stewart said the endangered cities were so chosen not because they are threatened by normal fluctuations of the free market, but because of congressional decisions that could devastate local economies.
In particular, the designation is a direct shot at the Endangered Species Act, which rural Westerners say allows Congress to shut down basic natural resources industries to protect wildlife without any regard for the human impact.
Stewart and the National Association of Counties want Congress to establish job-training and relocation programs to help displaced workers.
The National Association of Counties' action also lends moral support to the "Community Stability Act" - proposed federal legislation that would require the government to measure the economic impact of environmental decisions on local communities.