I went to a public meeting held recently in Bluff that was supposed to air different views on the proposed Bears Ears National Monument and its apparent alternative, the Public Lands Initiative (PLI). The Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, attended, which raised the stakes. The organizers told us that the purpose of the meeting was to listen and learn from the speakers, and that is exactly what I hoped to do. Comments on both sides thoughtfully addressed a range of issues associated with the alternative visions for the region.
What I did not hear in the arguments presented was a convincing analysis of the economic impacts that a national monument might have, so I would like to provide it in this letter. In most places, local authorities actively seek prized designations such as a national monument or a national park, because they believe the economic consequences will be positive for their regions. But in southeastern Utah, many local and state officials oppose national monument status, including Rep. Rob Bishop, whose rationale for the PLI is precisely to forestall proclamation of such a Monument. Are they correct to do so? I think not.
As things now stand, Cedar Mesa’s star attractions such as Grand Gulch, Slickhorn Canyon, Road Canyon and many more are hardly known outside of our area. (Natural Bridges National Monument is an exception.) Yes, they attract some tourists but not nearly as many as, say, Arches and Canyonlands, let alone Zion.
To get the travel agents in Berlin, Beijing and Boston to pay attention, you need an official national-level endorsement of the area’s outstanding qualities, and that usually means designation as a national park or monument. If Bears Ears N.M. were proclaimed, we would see a rising tide of visitors, which would revitalize the economies of struggling towns such as Blanding. Local people could confidently start new businesses from campgrounds and guide services to restaurants, while expanding existing ones such as auto repair shops and motels.
Meanwhile, traditional economic activities such as ranching would continue as before. As for oil and gas exploration, Lynn Jackson has pointed out that there is none around Cedar Mesa.
So what does our region have to lose, economically? Why oppose a designation that would bring money and jobs to our region and open up new opportunities for our children? I see no economic downside to a national monument and a very big upside.