BOULDER, Garfield County — If the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are shrunk, Blake Spalding says it will be the hammer likely to nail the doors shut on her nationally recognized restaurant.
After all, the Hell's Backbone Grill is named for the narrow, 9,000-foot elevation spine along the monument's Aquarius Plateau and in a biblical sense, the geologic formation begat the commercial enterprise.
"In my mind I try to think of what a tourist would think, that if it is reduced, it is damaged," Spalding said. "It could be a public relations nightmare for Utah tourism. I don't know, time will tell."
Blake Spalding, chef and co-owner of Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder, hikes along the Hogsback in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in his review of 27 monuments directed by President Donald Trump, said Thursday he is not recommending any rescission of a previous designation, but a "handful" of monument's boundaries will be reduced, which will include Grand Staircase and Bears Ears.
Zinke's words are an affront to monument supporters like Spalding, who says she believes a reduction will taint Grand Staircase-Escalante, signaling to the recreating public that somehow, some way, something is wrong with this place.
"I think that monument critics don't understand entirely the mindset or demographic of people who seek out quiet use wilderness as opposed to a national park," she said, sitting at a picnic table outside her Boulder residence on a warm morning last month.
But in the view of some of those folks who stamped out a lifestyle in this hardscrabble region long before Spalding discovered its beauty, the enormity of the nearly 1.9 million-acre monument is slamming the door on their future and strangling opportunities for them, even as it supplies Spalding's livelihood.
"They want this to be their own playground," charges Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock. "This is their paradise. They don't like us, they don't like Mormons, our traditions. They come out here from screwed up places like New York or California and expect us to listen to them. Why would we, when they've made such a mess of it?"
Pollock and conservative Utah politicians believe the "monument takeover" is a "left-coast" and East Coast-driven agenda to put land off limits from multiple use — even if it imperils the land the campaigns hope to "save."
"You have 2 million acres out there. Every native knows there are hundreds of thousands of acres that are never visited at all," Pollock said. "Most of it you can't get to because they have closed the roads, and what has happened is you have an environmental catastrophe."
Pollock points to the monument's growth of pinion and juniper, rabbit brush and soil erosion in which the land is literally being blown away by the wind and the rains.
"The areas not being touched by grazing are being washed away. Most of what they call a monument is Bureau of Land Management rangeland that needs grazing," he said.
Pollock is a rancher, engaged in a "traditional" occupation that some monument supporters say at the very least needs to change with the times, or be removed from public lands altogether.
"Successful ranchers are adapting to the change," said Ashley Korenblat, who runs a Moab mountain biking business and forged Public Land Solutions promoting a recreation economy.
Jake Heiner and Jeremy Strebel work on the Hell's Backbone Farm in Boulder on Saturday, July 8, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
While Korenblat maintains rural economies can and should sustain a mix of jobs, she says the BLM favors resource extraction, which creates roller coaster economic conditions for those dependent communities.
"We have to change the way we think about this land and these jobs if we are going to move into the 21st century. Everything the early settlers were doing and building was with an eye to the future. Now it feels like some of us want to hold onto the past."
Korenblat said that the commodity market is changing the demand for coal and other fossil fuels, while economies are marching headlong into service-orientated industries.
"There is some sort of notion about this idealistic job from the '50s where you work in the mine for 40 years, retire and get a pension. Those days are gone. Those jobs don't exist in industry anymore," she said.
The numbers show Utah's rural economies are suffering.
Data from the Utah Department of Workforce Services details that 11 of Utah's 29 counties — all rural — suffered job losses between 2007 and 2016 when the rest of the state was booming.
The list of culprits is long and varied depending on who you talk to: federal land ownership, failure to change, failure to diversify, remote location, changing economies or Washington, D.C., driving extraction industries to their knees.
"I think a big part of the issue here is counties wanting to control their economic destiny. That is a really difficult thing to do," said Natalie Gochnour, associate dean in the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
"It is difficult when the federal government owns a lot of land and commodity prices are determined on international markets."
Both San Juan and Garfield counties suffered job declines of 2.6 percent since before the Great Recession and into 2017, during the explosive economic growth experienced by the Wasatch Front.
An analysis by the Governor's Rural Partnership Board shows that the Wasatch Front would have to generate the equivalent of 35 jobs to equal the same economic impact of one job created in San Juan County, or 105 jobs to equal one created in Garfield County.
Even as Garfield County boasts a $78 million tourism economy, Pollock said its No. 1 export is its children because of the lack of jobs that can support families.
"We have one of the strongest tourist economies, but it is not because of BLM rangeland that nobody goes out to see," he said.
"Eighty-five percent of our tourists are driving a car — and they can't get to places they'd like to see like Hole in the Rock, which is 60 miles of hell to drive on that road because they won't let us pave it. People from all over the world want to see it, and they can't."
Pollock and others are still stung by the designation's shuttering of the proposed Andalex mine, which sought to tap into 23 billion tons of coal — in which 9 billion tons of coals are recoverable. It is by far Utah's largest coal field.
"They all hate drilling, they all hate coal mines and they all hate fossil fuel except for the fact that it runs their air conditioner in the summer and it gets their vehicles to where they are going," he said.
Pollock said 87 percent of every tax dollar from property taxes goes to the county's school district. The rest is enough to run the county for 16 days.
The rest has to come from the federal government, and it sure isn't being generated by what many viewed as an economic lifeboat — the coal mine — that was never to be.
Pollock's critics, however, can ony point to Utah's coal ravaged communities to say that Garfield County's forced coal-free diet is saving them in the long run.
"If you back up and do some basic economic analysis, oil and gas is not contributing to county budgets like it was before. The same thing with coal, right? Where the investment in energy is going, it's not going to coal," Korenblat said.
Coal as an energy source is on the decline across the country, and in Utah existing mines are closing. Is the monument's coal even viable?
Monument supporters point to Utah's recreation, travel and tourism economy, which generated more than $8 billion in revenue in 2015. With national parks experiencing double-digit increases in visitors the last couple of years, those revenue dollars will climb even higher.
"There are 150 businesses on this side of the county tied to that monument, yet we are being told our jobs don't matter," Spalding said.
Korenblat said the mix of tourism and traditional jobs will persist for some time, but in the interim it is the polarizing rhetoric that makes it easy for the American public to believe one segment must fall at the expense of the other.
Lifestyle and heritage
This intense media campaign accompanying Trump's review of monument designations is overflowing with catch phrases like, "Keep public land in public hands," and depictions of the administration putting for sale signs on pristine landscapes for hungry buyers like the oil industry.
The reality is, the BLM says the oil and gas potential is low inside Bears Ears monument, potash mining deposits are outside the boundaries, as is a planned uranium mine. Over the years, 75 to 100 wells have been drilled inside Bears Ears and all have been dry, according to state records, and there are no permits to drill.
There is ranching that does occur on BLM or Forest Service allotments, but two-thirds of the 1.35 million acres inside Bears Ears includes wilderness or other land use designations that either prohibit or severely restrict any resource extraction.
For many, the argument over monuments is an argument over lifestyle and heritage.
The Native Americans in favor of the Bears Ears National Monument see it as a way to preserve not only a lifestyle but their very culture, to keep looters at bay and recognize the sacred nature of the rugged and remote country.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke takes a horseback ride in the Bears Ears National Monument with local and state representatives on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Some believe it is possible to protect those vistas and honor the sacred underpinnings of the land for all who live there without falling into the trap of industrial tourism that may be inevitably spurred by a monument designation.
"Monument designation has become a marketing tool that transforms these places, that transforms these communities and people around them in ways that most average citizens don't consider," said Jim Stiles, founder and publisher of the independent newspaper Canyon Country Zephyr.
Stiles was entrenched in the environmental movement until he said he saw that the places to be protected became more of a "commodity" to be sold and a marketing tool to grow dollars and careers.
When he voiced his concerns and began calling out environmental organizations, he said he became persona non grata.
"It was a real shock to me. I thought we would be able to talk about it and put it out there and learn something from our own mistakes," he said.
Stiles lived in and published his newspaper in Moab, but fled to neighboring Monticello to escape the tourists, the skyrocketing housing prices and growing infrastructure problems.
The latest push over Bears Ears has concerned him, provoking him to write and speak about his fears. He said he's been called a racist.
"What concerns me about their attitude is that they don't really consider the people who have lived there the last 100 years. They are not interested in helping these rural communities, they are interested in replacing them."
Gochnour, however, said the reality is the economy has moved from goods to services.
"People are anxiously protecting a way of life, which is completely understandable. It is a beautiful, rural existence that we have had a rich history and tradition of in this state, but there is an economic reality," she said. "The economic reality is that our economy more than ever is based on service industries."
But Stiles said the mantra of many monument supporters is that the traditional way of life holds no place in a tourist economy.
"Their time has come and gone and it is time for them to go away, but they don't suggest where to go," he said.
Stiles said the bright light of the Bears Ears campaign will force residents to ask themselves what kind of community they want. He believes, as an example, that if Clark's Market in Blanding and Blue Mountain Foods begin opening their doors on Sundays, that will mark the sea change.
"The demands of a tourist town would never allow that (Sunday closings) to continue," he said. "The saddest thing about a tourism town is that it no longer exists for the people who live there. It exists for the people who are passing through."