America’s Public Lands Embody Our Common Ground: Heritage, Freedom and Hope for the Future.
Designated in 1996, Grand Staircase-Escalante is a serious powerhouse of amazing vistas, cool landscapes, adventure, science and history. Its designation established it as the scientific monument, and despite a serious lack of staff (the monument science staff has gone from 17 to 1 since 2000) and funding (by 2016 the monuments budget was already 1/3 of what it was in 1996), the monument continues to wow visitors, provide grand solitude and be a place of scientific discovery.
There are over 20,000 archeological sites in the area. In addition, there are dinosaurs! Twenty-one new dinosaurs have been discovered since 2000. (Sorry, no dinosaur pictures …)
Grand Staircase-Escalante is also home to the Escalante River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the West. The river felt like the life blood of the monument and has created fantastic washes, canyons and slot canyons that are a joy to explore. While we were there we headed up the famous Hole in the Wall Road (it travels from just north of Escalante to Lake Powell) and hiked to Golden Cathedral. It’s a stunning sandstone dome at the end of a narrow canyon with a waterfall that pours through a hole in the ceiling. The hike takes you across high plateau, traverses down a wide canyon to the Escalante river, and then up narrow Neon Canyon. Sitting there looking up at the dome, you can feel the history of the place.
Since President Clinton established the monument in 1996, there has been a continual grumble that the monument has hampered economic growth in the county by closing the area to oil, gas and mineral development. Not surprisingly, the current motivation behind the push to remove or shrink the monument is pressure from the fossil fuel industry.
The reality on the ground seemed much different. We found that the communities around Grand-Staircase Escalante to be excellent examples of the economic benefit designation of a monument can provide to local communities. Both Boulder and Escalante, Utah, seemed invigorated by the Monument. Local businesses had sprouted up clearly as a result of tourist traffic through the area. The Magnolia Street Food bus was parked outside of the visitor’s center and served up killer tacos using local and seasonal ingredients. In addition, one of the best restaurants in America is in Boulder, Utah – Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm. Jen Castle, co-owner of Hell’s Backbone, spoke at the This Land is Our Land March and extolled the benefits that the monument has brought to the community. We found a similar story in Escalante with cute restaurants, a great natural foods market, and tour guide companies. Both communities felt alive and thriving. Nate Waggoner from Escalante Outfitters was recently interviewed on Go, West Young Podcast (a super podcast by Center for Western Priorities which we recommend for anyone interested in public lands). He provides a solid local perspective for the economic growth the Monument has provided for the local communities. Later we visited Kanab and saw numerous businesses geared toward the Monument there as well.
As the BLM has emphasized in talking about the Monument’s archeological sites: it is the “wholeness of the sites” that makes the Monument so valuable. In Red, Passion and Patience in the Desert, Terry Tempest Williams also extolled the Monument for its importance as an ecological bridge between National Parks, a bridge between ecological islands. Williams poignantly describes Grand Staircase-Escalante as the “crucial missing puzzle piece that prevents ecological fragmentation”:
*** Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument rejoins Bryce National Park to Dixie National Forest and the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Area, which then weaves Capitol Reef National Park into Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
(If you are traveling through the Southwest definitely read or re-read Terry Tempest William’s collection of essays. It’s an amazing homage to the desert and the importance of wildness to our spirit.)
I don’t know if it was the river, the spirit of the surrounding communities, the canyons or the red desert, but Grand Staircase-Escalante stole our hearts, and it’s a place to which we will return.