10.16.13

Weathering the Shutdown: Spotlight on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

With an end to the government shutdown nearing, Ron Rogers, Communications Coordinator for the Escalante River Watershed Partnership (ERWP), compiled and wrote the following blog. It paints a broad and thought-provoking picture about how the government shutdown affected people who work, volunteer and visit communities and public lands in southern Utah.

• All public developed facilities within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are closed, including the vault toilets at major overlooks and scenic attractions. Roads and the public land within the Monument remain open and visitors have access to overlooks/attractions but not the use of restrooms. It will be a mess when staff goes back in to clean up the human waste around these facilities.

• According to Garfield County officials, 75 percent of the county’s revenue is dependent on tourism, which accounts for more than 40 percent of the jobs. In Kane County, tourism accounts for 1/3 of the local economy, according to the county’s tourism office. Tour bus and other tourism traffic has really dropped off. Businesses are laying off staff in the motels, cafes, gift shops and other tourism facilities. These private employees and their staff will really be hit hard because the businesses will not pay them for hours they do not work. Many of the service staff will be losing paychecks permanently, unlike federal employees. Here is a related news article.

• The 40+ archaeological site stewards who volunteer with Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (the “Friends” group for the monument) have been asked by BLM not to monitor their respective archaeological and paleontological sites during the shutdown. This is significant because there is no likelihood that a person who wants to loot or vandalize archaeological sites will meet any BLM law enforcement officer or site steward in the backcountry. These individuals know that no one is patrolling the public lands. Look out cultural resources!

• Grand Staircase Escalante Partners were asked to move out of their offices in the Kanab and Escalante BLM Visitor Centers and have been denied access to the BLM buildings and other facilities. Two of the Partners staff can’t work because their jobs are dependent on working in BLM buildings. Two Partners employees are working significantly fewer hours per week and three Partners employees are working fulltime from their homes — the Executive Director and the two staff involved with Russian olive removal on the Escalante River. Three Partners contractors are working by the hour as needed.

• Over the summer, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument managers and staff worked closely with the community of Big Water to organize and host their first-ever Dinosaur Festival. The managers committed assistance and the use of the monument’s dinosaur skull casts to show at the festival. The monument’s paleontologist was going to talk at the festival and work the monument’s booth. A guided auto tour was scheduled to take the public to a dinosaur dig within the monument. Grand Staircase Escalante Partners were going to have a booth adjacent to the monument booth.

The Monument Manager asked if volunteers with Partners could pick up some of the Dinosaur Festival slack, since BLM staff couldn’t legally work or even volunteer at the Festival. Not only did we pick up some slack, but the Partners booth became the dominant booth at the festival. We exhibited four full-sized dinosaur skull casts, we had the Executive Director and two board members working the booth, the Partners Paleo Lab Coordinator (a trained paleontologist without the advanced university degrees) stepped in, spoke to the public at the festival, and worked the booth explaining the dinosaurs of Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. This Partners employee also brought numerous bones from the paleo lab, posters, handouts and reference documents for the festival visitors to see, study and learn about. The Big Water City Council and Mayor have publicly given Partners a lot of credit for saving their first Dinosaur Festival—and only the auto-guided tour had to be cancelled. See the follow-up article here.

• Grand Staircase Escalante Partners plays a major role in coordinating and conducting restoration work on the Escalante River, which flows through the National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, before it joins the Colorado River at Lake Powell. Partners was asked by Glen Canyon National Recreation Area staff to pull out the conservation youth corps crew and a Navajo cutting crew from within the park area when the shutdown went in affect. BLM made the determination that the conservation corps working within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument could continue working because these crews are not federal employees, not dependent on federal dollars, and are supervised by Partners staff, not federal employees. In addition, Partners staff and the conservation corps depend upon Garfield County for radio dispatch, search and rescue, and medical evacuation, not the BLM.

• Kris Waggoner, a Partners employee and Noel Poe, a Partners board member worked with one of the major grantors for restoration work (Utah Partners for Conservation and Development – UPCD) to transfer monies used to fund restoration activities. This took a lot of time and collaboration, but ensured that conservation crews can continue working in the monument and will be paid—and the over-all project will not fall way behind this fall.

• Grand Staircase Escalante Partners and the Escalante River Watershed Partnership has been able to host two additional conservation corps crews this past week. These crew members can continue working (and continue getting paid) on the National Monument. These crews came at no additional cost to Partners.

• From a local business perspective, the town of Escalante is very fortunate. There are over two million acres of National Conservation Lands between Bryce Canyon National Park and Capital Reef National Park that are still accessible. Visitors are now making this their destination. Local restaurants, hotels, B&B’s, grocery stores, etc. are dealing with a surge of late-season business. Road pull-offs, scenic overlooks, and usually empty spaces are often filled with tour buses, cars, and camper vans. If there is a silver lining to this unfortunate mess, it may be the opportunity for visitors to discover some of these places and embrace them for their beauty and wildness.

• Yes, we are concerned about the amount of people “loving” our area to death – and having trash and toilet facilities closed has been a huge issue. I think a major clean-up will be in store for Scenic Highway 12. (Photo courtesy of Escalante River Watershed Partnership)

ERWP crew