By Frances Johnson
There is no doubt that tourism is big business in Utah and the state’s public lands — including “The Mighty 5” of Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks — play a big role in attracting visitors. Travelers to the state spent $8.17 billion in 2016, according to Jay Kinghorn, communications and digital strategy director for the Utah Tourism Office, which translated into state and local tax revenue of $1.15 billion last year.
“The national parks and scenic areas within Utah are a significant draw to the state,” Kinghorn understated.
And Utah’s reputation as a recreational destination has economic advantages other than tourism, such as the Outdoor Retailer trade show, which has for each of the past 20 years brought nearly $40 million to the state.
But, how much is enough?
With the recent designation in San Juan County of 1.35 million acres as the Bears Ears National Monument by Pres. Obama, however, tensions have arisen over how much protected land is best for the state as a whole and local economies in particular.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is responsible for the management of a large percentage of public lands in Utah, has concluded that public lands designations, which include multiple uses such as national parks and monuments, oil and gas leases and grazing lands, are beneficial to both the state and the local communities where they are located.
The BLM Canyon Country District Office includes the Moab Field Office and the Monticello Field Office. The Moab Field Office administers approximately 1.8 million acres of public surface lands and a similar amount of federal mineral estate, mostly within Grand County. The Monticello Field Office administers approximately 1.8 million acres of public surface lands and 2.5 million acres of federal mineral estate, almost entirely within San Juan County.
In Grand County, home to Arches and Canyonlands national parks as well as Dead Horse Point State Park, the BLM reports that BLM-managed activities and resources account for nearly 50 percent of employment, 38 percent of labor income and 40 percent of total output. In San Juan County, which includes portions of Canyonlands National Park, Lake Powell National Recreation Area and Natural Bridges National Monument, as well as the new Bears Ears National Monument, BLM-managed activities and resources account for approximately 13.2 percent of employment, 15.5 percent of labor income and 34.8 percent of total output.
“BLM reports and other economic data show that activities on public lands directly and indirectly contribute to Grand and San Juan counties,” said Lisa Bryant, BLM’s Canyon Country District spokesperson. “The independent research group Headwaters Economics shows that federal lands, including special designations, provide an economic benefit to surrounding communities.”
Though the BLM does not have an official position on Bears Ears, Bryant did comment that, “Mostly what we’ve seen is that these types of designations do tend to benefit the local community.”
Talk to people living in the communities that house these public lands, however, and you start to hear a more nuanced story.
According to Bruce Adams, a county commissioner in San Juan County and fourth-generation cattle rancher, public lands — including Bears Ears — are a complicated combination of pros and cons.
“The 'up' of the Bears Ears National Monument is that it will attract a lot of tourists and people from states that don’t have a lot of public lands,” Adams said. “They’ll rent motels, buy gas and eat in restaurants. That’s good for the county, for the tourism part of the county.”
The flip side is that is a large influx of tourists can put a strain on the resources of a small county such as San Juan, with a year-round population of just 15,000 people. In addition, Adams said, public lands designations often end up limiting access to the very land they are designed to protect and promote. Existing roads and access points are often closed or restricted, making it more difficult for local residents to use the land in the way they did previously.
“With those restrictions, the tourism doesn’t do us any good,” Adams said. “I think the designation could be more harmful than helpful.”
In addition, the benefits of tourism generated from public lands doesn’t come exclusively to the local communities where the public lands are located, Adams said. For example, the National Park Service let four concessionaire contracts for tour operators to take visitors through Canyonlands National Park. Three of them went to companies in Moab, Adams said, and only one to a tour operator in San Juan county seat of Monticello.
“Now we’re going to have another big national monument here. Are people from Moab going to get those concessionaire contracts, too?” Adams asked.
But tourism and recreation-related public lands are not the only concern. The BLM also manages land used for oil and gas exploration and livestock grazing, and locals feel management of those lands is overly restrictive, to the detriment of their local economies.
Public lands become most contentious when there is no compromise between environmentalists and industry, said Mike McKee, Uintah County commissioner. Uintah County includes portions of Dinosaur National Monument.
“We want to see opportunities for the development of our extractive industries,” McKee said. “Some people want to paint the oil and gas industry as villains. We object to those thoughts because our industry is built around that. We believe that we can be great stewards of the land. We believe that we are, and have been, great stewards of the land.”
In Grand County, which includes Moab, mineral activities consist mostly of oil and gas well operations, with 296 producing gas wells and 45 producing oil wells on BLM land in the county as of 2012.
BLM land in San Juan County hosts oil and gas operations as well as uranium and copper mining. Oil and gas account for more than $1.5 million a year in labor income. The Lisbon Valley Copper Mine expects annual production of $66 million in copper ore.
The state as a whole received $160.1 million in total mineral lease payments from the federal government in 2011 with mineral lease payments to the counties totaling $47,48 million in the same year.
But even mining and other natural resource exploration could be more lucrative with less government oversight and regulation, Adams said.
“We haven’t met great success with the BLM managing public lands to the benefit of the citizens of the county,” he said.
As an example, he cited the experience of a company that was interested in potash development about 10 miles away from BLM land in San Juan County. The company spent more than a year and $20 million to prove the resource was viable. After a separate BLM resource management study, the company was granted permission to begin extracting the resource but was prohibited from using any surface equipment.
“You tell me how you extract a resource from the ground without any machinery on the surface,” Adams said. “So we lost that whole industry in our county, which would have been thousands of jobs. We rely on the extractive industry and always have in this county and it’s just getting less and less possible.”
It is this strong opposition from those living closest to public lands, particularly the controversial Bears Ears designation, that have prompted action from the Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah State Legislature to have that designation overturned, a decision that has been very unpopular with state and national conservation organizations and companies committed to outdoor recreation. Most notably, the twice-yearly Outdoor Retailer trade show has announced it will not renew its contract with Salt Lake City in protest of what organizers see as the state government’s lack of support for the protection and conservation of public land.
On a phone call with several representatives of the Outdoor Retailer show on Feb. 16, Herbert told participants, “Some of those deep feelings about a monument still reside, particularly with a lot of the local people in the rural parts of our state who are struggling economically.”
The governor also stated that the Bears Ears designation in its entirety, as well as the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, are overreaches of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which was used to establish them.
It’s a sentiment local residents agree with.
“Public land really defines our county,” McKee said of Uintah County. “I think we have all the value you can find in public land and I think most people support the public lands. But there are those who take it too far. We believe there can be a win-win for everyone. I think the best stewards of the land are people who live close by them.”
Adams concurs. “The people who live here live here for a reason,” he said. “They want to live here because they love it. They live here because this is where their ancestors established their home. They want to live in a county like San Juan. They’re here 365 days a year, not for a weekend of fun and exploration. This designation won’t protect this land any better than it’s protected already.”