Garfield, Escalante on verge of devastation; state of emergency imminent

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.

Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Escalante High School, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Escalante High School, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

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.

Sign for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument | Photo courtesy of Todd Tischler, St. George News
Sign for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument | Photo courtesy of Todd Tischler, St. George News

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.”

Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Emtpy houses and businesses, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Emtpy houses and businesses, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

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.

Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Emtpy houses and businesses, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Emtpy houses and businesses, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

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.

Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Stables that once housed horses, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Stables that once housed horses, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

“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.

Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Closed saw mill that used to provide jobs, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Closed Steed saw mill that used to provide jobs, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

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.”

Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Closed saw mill that used to provide jobs, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Closed Steed saw mill that used to provide jobs, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

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.”

Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Escalante Elementary School, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse, Escalante Elementary School, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

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.

Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse as a result of tourism and the federal government, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Garfield County is home to communities steeped in heritage and history that officials say are on the verge of collapse as a result of tourism and the federal government, Escalante, Utah, June 15, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

“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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Email: cmiller@stgnews.com

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

 

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19 Comments

  • anybody home June 17, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    Things change. I’m sure the native Americans who lived on this land before the pioneers arrived lamented the new ways and the new world, too. The lives of the native Americans were turned upside down and in some cases they were slaughtered. Settlers and their descendants raise many a hue and cry about any encroachment on their property or ways of life, but history is history. How you feel about it just kind of depends on which side of the table you’re sittin’.

    • Username June 20, 2015 at 6:26 pm

      If you drove through Escalante ten or more years ago and drive through now, you will notice a dozen or so renovated properties. There are new businesses and opportunity to have more. I can’t believe Jerry Taylor is entertaining the idea of a coal power plant. Isn’t that the problem these days? Pollution from these power plants are a big contributor to climate change. Not to mention disgusting. These old rednecks of Utah are so ignorant, it is quite funny. I know that every year businesses that cater to tourism get busier and busier. And maybe the school doesn’t have as many kids because there aren’t as many big LDS families with 8 kids in the same school!

  • fun bag June 17, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    To be fair there was never much going on there. Place was always a hole. More kooky hard right nonsense…

    • mesaman June 17, 2015 at 7:47 pm

      You must be very careful, scumbag. If Bammie were to pass gas it would blow your brains out.

      • fun bag June 17, 2015 at 8:42 pm

        mesa idiot, shouldn’t u be out “milking your cows” or something?…

    • truth_seeker June 18, 2015 at 11:22 am

      Spoken like a paid-for government troll.

  • native born new mexican June 17, 2015 at 7:39 pm

    This is the real purpose of all the federal government land garbing; to run people off the land. No this is not change this is intentional destruction. Read the agenda 21 language. It will scare the heck out of you. People are to be controlled and managed like livestock. That is what the world elite consider us to be. If you read the number of people agenda 21 allows for, a whole lot of people will have to disappeared from the world according to their figures. I wonder how they plan for that to happen?

    • fun bag June 17, 2015 at 8:40 pm

      you’re a total nutter and a kook

      • Brian June 18, 2015 at 8:00 am

        Better to be an informed nutter and an informed kook than an uninformed troll. Read the actual text of Agenda 21, directly from the UN website, then lets talk. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/Agenda21.pdf Things it deems “unsustainable” include private property, fossil fuels, golf courses, ski lodges, paved roads, agriculture, farm lands, grazing livestock, “the family unit”, parental rights, etc. If the TPP goes through the economic destruction seen around Escalante will spread dramatically, but we won’t have any recourse since we’ll then be governed globally, as the TPP will supersede the Constitution and be irreversible. I’d say to read the TPP, but it’s secret, so we can’t. And the treasonous republicans are foaming at the mouth to pass it.

        • fun bag June 18, 2015 at 10:37 am

          “the treasonous republicans are foaming at the mouth”

          this we can agree on

        • KarenS June 18, 2015 at 11:07 am

          Is that Agenda 21 from 1992? Thanks, I’ve had my laugh for the day.

          Seriously, a new coal mine would solve all their problems? This is 2015, not 1915, or 1815. As far as a land grab goes, the land already belongs to all of us, we the people. I want to keep it away from those who would sell it off and then block access to the public. Know any ATV trails in Texas?? I didn’t think so.

        • truth_seeker June 18, 2015 at 11:27 am

          Good stuff, Brian.

          Agenda 21 is a real entity but it goes by different names, labels and radical environmentalist organizations in order to be hidden by these one-worlder usurpers.

        • anybody home June 19, 2015 at 7:32 pm

          Hey, Brian…The document you cite is 351 pages long. I’m pretty sure you have not read all 351 pages, but in any case, could you please give the page numbers that speak about all the things you claim it deems are “unsustainable” – private property, fossil fuels, golf courses, ski lodges, paved roads, agriculture, farm lands, grazing livestock, “the family unit,” parental rights, etc. From a quick glance, it looks as if this report is quite interested in farm lands and agriculture as sustainable activities and I have a hard time believing that the report speaks to family units and parental rights at all.

          But I know you are always on top of these things, so please help me out and tell me which pages to read. Thanks. If I don’t hear back, I’ll just understand that you don’t have any idea which pages these are.

      • truth_seeker June 18, 2015 at 11:24 am

        Native Born New Mexican: Don’t listen to the above troll. He’s most likely a paid hack for the government*.

        *Source: https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/02/24/jtrig-manipulation/

  • voice of reason June 17, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    I’ve never understood why there are so many counties within the state of Utah. Our southern neighbor Arizona has way more land and people and only 15 counties to our 29. The best thing I can think of would be for a number of these smaller counties to fold up and join together. They could reduce the administrative costs associated with the counties (especially in schooling, law enforcement, county commissioners and county staff). A super county of Beaver, Iron, Piute, Wayne, Garfield and Kane could provide a much needed economic boost. Or at least cut some overhead.

  • sagemoon June 18, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Voice of Reason makes a good suggestion. As for me, coal mining? Seriously? This is the 21st century. Coal is going out of style. Garfield County needs to start considering becoming a hub for wind or solar power if energy production is the game they want to join.

  • Pheo June 18, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    What is the excuse for all the other small towns across America that are shrinking?

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303325204579463761632103386

  • Hayduke June 18, 2015 at 8:10 pm

    This is reality. Most people grow up and leave their hometowns looking for opportunity. My mother moved around the world. My dad left the farm, went to college and ended up in the suburbs.
    Mining coal and running cattle in the desert simply are viable. The timber industry is hardly sustainable.
    Why doesn’t someone from Escalante get an engineering degree, design some medical device then open a manufacturing plant back in their hometown? That would certainly be more viable than grazing cattle and pulling coal out of the earth.
    It’s easy to blame the government but if that land were private property I’ll wager there would be even fewer jobs for the locals. In fact One of the largest employers in small towns in the west happen to be government jobs.
    It’s sad that the town is shrinking but it’s not the government’s fault. It’s not the fault of conservationists.
    Detroit lost jobs and lost 2/3 of it’s population as a result. Nobody there is blaming the government.

    • anybody home June 19, 2015 at 7:37 pm

      Great comment. I’m surprised nobody wants to develop a handcart business in Escalante. I come from Utah coal mining roots and I can assure you not one single person went back to this miserable life.

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