GARFIELD COUNTY – Since the birth of Grand Staircase Escalante-National Monument in 1996 city and county officials say they have seen such a severe decline in industry that it has led to an increased loss of both revenue and residents. This has caused school enrollments to fall so low districtwide that they are now considering filing a State of Emergency.
The matter was first brought to the public’s attention at a June 8 Garfield County Commission meeting, which was the first of many yet to come.
Garfield County Superintendent Ben Dalton and Garfield County School District Administrator Patty Murphy presented a PowerPoint presentation to attendees.
The “Actual Fall Enrollment” slide from the presentation shows dates back to 1990 and shows an increase in school enrollments until about 1996 – the same year the Grand Staircase became a national monument. Though it dropped and then increased again through the next three years, since 1999 it has continued to plummet at an extreme and consistent rate.
The slide went on to project that between 2015 and 2020 student enrollment will drop from 900 students to nearly 800 students, which could mean potentially closing doors in some places.
It is the hope of the county that, County Commissioner Leland Pollock said, by filing a State of Emergency the county would get some attention from senators and representatives that would lead to assistance with economic development.
Pollock had some ideas about why residents are leaving at such an alarming rate.
“For starters, the federal land is killing us,” Pollock said, explaining that in a county that is “roughly the size of the state of Connecticut” the federal government owns 93 percent of the land.
The state owns another 3.5 percent, he said, leaving only 3.5 percent of land within the county borders to private ownership that can be developed and taxed for revenue.
“In Escalante schools, seventh through 12th grade, in 1996 we had 140 children,” Pollock said. “Today, on the ground, we have 50.”
The bottom line, he said, is that the creation of the national monument locked up the land in such a way that all of the industry in the county was no longer viable and businesses began to close one after the other.
A tour through the dying town of Escalante City revealed a community in dire straits. While some new businesses have moved into the area in the past couple of years, including a medical center and a hardware store, many more have closed.
House after house stands vacant, many of them in disrepair, falling prey to the environment that has slowly begun to reclaim the land for itself.
Some houses have been family-owned for generations, Escalante Mayor Jerry Taylor said, but residents have been forced to sell and move to a place where work is available in order to support their young families.
“We need young families,” Taylor said. “But we need for them to have something to do (for work).”
Taylor said that though the location is remote, it would be a prime location for any family who owns a business that allows them to work out of the home. He has some other economy-boosting ideas as well.
Escalante is home to one of the largest deposits of coal in the world, Taylor said, but they are unable to mine it, because they are not allowed to manage the land anymore since the monument was established.
“There was research here to have a coal mine and to put a power plant right out south of town here for Utah Power and Light,” Taylor said.
But, he said, those goals never happened, because of the federal government’s hold over the land.
“We need jobs and opportunities here,” Taylor said. “Yeah, the monument has brought some government jobs here and it’s helped the tourism – it’s the other jobs we need here.”
At one point there were healthy industries in the area including: cattle ranching, coal mining, oil drilling, logging and sawmills. While there are still a few ranchers left on the land, Taylor said, the rest of the jobs have dried up with the loss of businesses.
Stephanie Steed grew up in Panguitch, she said, but she has lived in Escalante for 24 years and it is home to her and her family. Her husband and his two brothers owned a sawmill in the area that provided 65 jobs on site.
Increased prices of the dead, raw timber that the federal government would auction caused them to look elsewhere, Steed said, which became a time consuming and expensive prospect.
“It got to the point where it was so expensive and all they wanted to sell was dead timber – the bug timber,” she said. “And you can’t sell dead timber so we would wind up going down Cedar Mountain to get aspen to sell to China to make snow boards and then they would send it back to the United States.”
At one point there was a huge fire on site that took all of the timber reserves, Steed said. With the exorbitant costs of rebuilding their stock, because of the lack of access to local timber, she said, they had to close their doors and let all of their employees go.
“It was hard,” she said. “People had to move, and a lot of people lost a lot of stuff.”
Steed landed a job with the city as a secretary and her husband spent two years commuting three hours to St. George until he could find work closer to home so they could stay in Escalante and keep their house.
The Steed family lost almost everything they had built after the mill closed. They owned 540 acres of dry land and a ranch before the mill closed, she said, and along with that, they lost their retirement savings.
“Basically, we kept our home and a little bit of land,” she said. “(Everything else) – it’s gone.”
At the time they had three children in the school system, Steed said. They only have one daughter in Escalante schools currently, but they are considering sending her to live with family somewhere else where she will have all of the advantages other students get, including access to the sports programs that she loves to participate in.
“It’s horrible,” she said. “I don’t want her to leave, but I don’t want her to not have the opportunity to get a good education and have a social life, so….”
If the school closed in Escalante, Steed said, in her opinion, there would be no more Escalante.
“It would become a ghost town,” she said. “I honestly think so.
“I’ve talked to a young mother today and I said the the school meeting is Wednesday and she says, ‘I know.’ she says, ‘What will we do, if we close the school I will have to move.'”
Stories like the Steeds’ are not isolated incidents since the onset of the tourism era and the national monument, Taylor said. Although there are no studies that he is aware of that show a direct connection, he said, the correlation is impossible to ignore.
“Tourism is great, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But we need something more.”
The tourism industry is simply not enough to support the livelihoods of the families who live in the tiny town, Taylor said, and it’s time for the federal government to step up to the plate and start participating in the economic growth in the area.
There will be a community forum to inform the public and get feedback from community members Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Escalante in the high school auditorium, 800 UT-12, Escalante.
The State of Emergency resolution will be opened for public comment at the next County Commission meeting in the Commission Chambers, 55 S. Main St., Panguitch, Monday at 2 p.m. before the county takes final action with a vote to adopt.
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