It's been 22 years since my last visit to the area around Boulder and Escalante, Utah, so it was interesting to see what changes had occurred in the interim. When President Bill Clinton designated 1.9 million acres of this area as the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, in 1996, there were howls of protest from a variety of special interests saying the designation would radically change the nature of the area. To put it bluntly, their case was largely built on speculative fears and, as anyone visiting Boulder today can see, those fears turned out to be completely jive.
For those who aren't familiar with this area, it is incredibly remote, rugged country characterized primarily by deep rock canyons carved over millennia by water and wind. What little vegetation it can support is typical of Utah's desert country—some scrub oak, piñon pine, gnarly junipers, and, along the water courses, some willows and cottonwoods. In the higher elevations, winter snows provide enough water for ponderosa pine and aspen to survive, but this isn't what you'd call logging country. Nor, since virtually every form of plant has evolved with cactus-like spines and thorns or is outright poisonous, would a Montanan think of it as ranching country.
If you were to give a Montana cow a choice of going to the slaughterhouse or trying to survive on the sparse desert forage, it would likely say "send me to slaughter—it'll be quicker than slowly starving to death." But that would be a Montana cow. Down in Utah, cattle ranching on millions of acres of vast but sparsely-vegetated public lands continues to exist and, at least for some, thrive.
When Clinton announced his intention to designate the national monument, many of the protests and dire predictions came from cattle ranchers. They were, of course, joined by the powerful energy corporations who seem incapable of finding reasons to save landscapes and natural ecosystems for future generations. If you can drill it for oil and gas, it should be drilled. If you can mine it for coal, copper, or gold, it should be mined. Many believe, after all, that man was given dominion over the earth, so why not exploit it to the maximum possible extent?
Yet Clinton, in perhaps the most lasting accomplishment of his presidency, bucked these special interests and declared that this place of stunning visuals, and unique landforms and their resident flora and fauna, should be preserved intact for the future.
Let's be clear here. Getting to Boulder, Utah is not easy. If you come in from the north, you take a narrow, steep, and incredibly twisting, two-lane asphalt road up and over a 10,000 foot plateau that, as of this second week of May, is still deep in snow. If you come up from the south, the road from Escalante winds along a backbone of rock that is not for the faint-hearted. In many places the canyon walls virtually touch the fog line of the road with drop-offs on both sides of thousands of very vertical feet to canyons far below. For most of the 35 miles between Boulder and Escalante there are no guardrails and, should the careless driver not pay very careful attention, a mistake would prove fatal.
When the national monument designation was proposed, many feared the theoretical impacts that would accrue. We've heard it all before many times in Montana and elsewhere. The "newcomers" would ruin the lifestyle for existing residents, new restrictions on the land would crush the local economies, and speculators would hack private lands into smaller and smaller pieces for get-rich-quick subdivisions.
But what actually happened? Well, the Boulder Mountain Lodge, where we stayed, wasn't there in 1989, but was built prior to the monument designation. As far as a few days of observation could tell, the lodge and a couple of restaurants at the junction of Highway 12 and the Burr Trail are about the extent of the development. There were no subdivisions in sight, or signs for same. The cattle still stand contentedly in the fields of those lucky enough to have irrigation rights to the precious water that runs off the nearby mountains and cow pies are still in evidence wherever we went in the backcountry. In short, if this is the feared development and economic restriction, the fear was vastly overblown.
We ate at Hell's Backbone Grill, which takes its name from a nearby tortuous rib of rock. Given the sparse population of the area, it was amazing to see that reservations were required. The clientele seemed more than happy to eat, drink, and enjoy the spectacular views while leaving behind not insignificant amounts of money to keep the local economy alive.
Today the population of the Boulder area is around 230 hardy souls—about 100 folks less than Jordan, Montana. As many Montanans know, the Department of Interior is studying the feasibility of designating significant portions of public land in far northeastern Montana as a national monument. The fears we hear now are very much like those voiced 15 years ago when Clinton designated Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: An influx of newcomers, changing lifestyles, reduced economic opportunities and restrictive new land use regulations.
While it's true that a few days in Boulder do not tell the whole tale of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, it's also fair to say that if what's going on in Boulder, Utah, today is what's feared in northeast Montana, those concerns are baseless.
As UM professor emeritus Tom Power commented just this week, the economies of counties near wilderness areas and national parks continue to outperform other rural areas. Perhaps the time has come to dump the fanciful fears and take a clear-headed look at what a national monument in our great northern plains could actually do for, not to, Montana. We, and the nation, may have much more to gain than to lose.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.