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Zinke's Utah Visit Response, Part 1

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tour of Utah has concluded, but representatives from southern Utah’s tribes, business leaders, environmental organizations and nonprofits say nobody listened to them.

Monument supporters say Zinke spent considerable time with Utah elected officials and found time to look at coal seams in Grand Staircase with Garfield County commissioners.  They say he used the occasion of a horseback ride in Bears Ears to worry about ranchers’ grazing rights on public lands.

What he didn’t do, according to some, is speak to hundreds of monument supporters. Those supporters gathered in Kanab on Wednesday, for a rally sponsored by the Escalante and Boulder Chamber of Commerce. Byron Ellis runs a business in Escalante.

“Mr. Zinke, in spite of what you’re being told, the communities in Garfield County are growing and vibrant, with construction booming and visitors flocking to the area from all over the world,” Ellis said.

Ellis said the perception of a desolated region is a myth being propagated by local and state elected officials who are attempting to reverse the protections that have been in place for several years.

"Some of these politicians use the term ‘land grab’ when referring to monument designations. These were already federal lands, and preserving these lands for future generations is the opposite of a land grab,” he said.

President Trump’s threat to shrink Grand Staircase has galvanized opposition among the business communities in the small nearby towns. Scott Berry is co-owner of the Boulder Mountain Lodge.

“We’ve seen new families, new people come in, young pioneers coming to fall in love with these landscapes, to start their own families, to start their own businesses,” Berry said. “This is the future of this corner of Utah. It’s these young people coming, willing to make a new start in this corner of the world.”

There is widespread belief in the area that Trump wants to shrink Grand Staircase mainly to make way for more mining of the area’s low-quality lignite coal. Mark Austin, a board member of the Escalante/Boulder Chamber, is skeptical of a coal economy and a firm supporter of national monument status. 

“Their argument is that it’s bad for business, it hurts the community,” Austin said.    “We are the business community. It has been fantastic.”

“I own the largest construction company in Garfield County,” he said. “In terms of jobs, the emergency, it truly is an emergency, we can’t find anybody to hire, I mean seriously, it’s crazy. This whole idea that there’s no jobs.”

Nathan Waggoner serves on the chamber board and is owner of Escalante Outfitters. He said the anti-monument opinion in Escalante is in the minority.

“It’s definitely on the decline,” he said. “This year alone in Escalante we’ve had local families build 50-room lodges, and open a new RV park and a Laundromat.”

Waggoner said the local population and young families are buying into the national monument and are investing in industry that surrounds the national monument.

During Zinke’s visit another Chamber member, Megan Smith, referenced the Interior Secretary’s professed admiration of Teddy Roosevelt.

“I own and operate a small vacation rental business in Kane County,” Smith said. “The Antiquities Act was supported in the House and in the Senate by both Democrats and Republicans, and signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.  Teddy Roosevelt remains one of our greatest champions for conservation, and Secretary Zinke, I hope that one day I can say the same about you,” she said to cheers.

Blake Spalding, owner of the Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, says 150 letters to the Interior Department got no response.

“We were denied meetings with him,” Spalding said. “We hear rumors that he came through our town Monday in Boulder and did not have one meeting with any of the business owners.”

“Actually the majority, the vast majority if not unanimous, the members of the Chamber of Commerce support the monument,” Austin said. “And yet, we cannot get the Utah delegation nor the Secretary of Interior to pay any attention to us whatsoever.”

Wednesday evening the group gathered at the Kanab Airport. They pressed up against the fence around the tarmac for what would be another failed attempt to interact with Zinke before he departed. 

Originally from Wyoming, Jon Kovash has practiced journalism throughout the intermountain west. He was editor of the student paper at Denver’s Metropolitan College and an early editor at the Aspen Daily News. He served as KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced Thin Air, an award-winning regional radio news magazine that ran on 20 community stations in the Four Corners states. In Utah his reports have been featured on KUER/SLC and KZMU/Moab. Kovash is a senior correspondent for Mountain Gazette and plays alto sax in “Moab’s largest garage band."