The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument covers 1.9 million acres of Kane and Garfield Counties. It’s not the easiest place to visit, but there’s an effort underway to improve access along one of its most popular roads.
We bounced along the Hole-in-the-Rock road just outside Escalante. Pat Shea, the former director of the Bureau of Land Management was driving because he knows the way. The road is washboard rough but wide and graded. It’s among the most frequently traveled roads through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument – which on this weekend means we see perhaps a dozen other cars along the 56-mile route to the cliffs overlooking Lake Powell.
Garfield County has asked the Federal Highway Administration for $15 million dollars to improve the Hole-in-the-Rock road. They’d use it for drainage improvements and to put down gravel along the first 16 miles from Escalante to the Kane County line. Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock says they want to make it more inviting to visitors.
“We’re doing the best we can," Pollock told KUER in an interview at the Garfield County Courthouse in Panguitch. "Obviously, we could do a lot more if we had some of the restrictions lifted on the road, we could do a lot more. But given the conditions we’re under, the restraints, regulations, we’re doing the best we can with that road.”
Limiting roads and other development in this vast area of southern Utah was the main purpose of creating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Under a century-old federal law called the Antiquities Act, President Bill Clinton had the legal authority to set aside areas of public land as national monuments.
Mike Leavitt was governor of Utah at the time. He says the area clearly needed better management and protection. But Leavitt says he wasn’t consulted in advance – he read about the impending announcement in the Washington Post. When he couldn’t get the answers he wanted from the Interior Department, Leavitt went directly to President Clinton.
“He finally called me about quarter to two in the morning," Leavitt told KUER. "We had a conversation that lasted 20-25 minutes. He indicated that he understood my concerns. Wished there were ways in which my concerns could be accommodated. I suggested a number of things that I thought could be done and asked him to pause long enough to work together on it."
But the president decided not to wait. With the election looming, he signed an executive order creating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on September 18th, 1996. Though the monument is entirely within the state of Utah, Clinton made his announcement at an event across the state line in Arizona.
It delighted environmentalists, who wanted to cut off any further development of the coal deposits on the Kaiparowits Plateau. It didn’t sit well with many residents of Kane and Garfield Counties, who felt hemmed in by increasing restrictions on the land they’ve lived on for generations.
As he drove past miles of sagebrush and spring wildflowers toward Lake Powell, Pat Shea reflected on a trip he took to the area with Rowley Robinson, who was the Utah director of the Bureau of Land Management in 1997. Shea had just been nominated by President Clinton to head the agency.
“We had breakfast one morning in Escalante," Shea recalled. "And we walked in. There were a bunch of cowboys discussing how they would want to lynch the new BLM director because he was from Utah. And, of course, I was sitting in the next booth over. Rowley said, ‘How much is it worth to you that I don’t tell ‘em who you are?’”
In the years since, the monument has become a driver of the southern Utah economy, drawing visitors from all over the world. Pat Shea says a more recent visit to a restaurant in Kanab was very different.
He said there was “A group of Japanese. A group of Koreans. Group of Chinese, group of Germans and a group of French. This was December. It was snowing. But they were so taken by the notion that a parcel of land as large as the Grand Staircase could be set aside so the people of the world could come and visit it.”
At the end of the Hole-in-the-Rock Road, you can look down through the narrow space where Mormon pioneers used ropes to lower their wagons down to the Colorado River on their way to settle San Juan County in 1880. Melanda Schmitz, a visitor from Florida, could hardly believe it happened.
“I can’t imagine how they actually got all the wagons and oxen and cattle and people down these cliffs," she said, standing at the top of the narrow gap in the sandstone cliffs. "Just to come up with the idea that they’re going to blast a hole through the rock to get down. They had to be pretty committed to finishing blazing this trail. Just breathtaking.”
Garfield County commissioner Leland Pollock would like many more people to see that, whether it’s on an improved gravel road or eventually, if drivers could reach it on blacktop.
“If you paved the road for 60 miles, you would have an influx of all types of tourism," Pollock says. "Most of the people that enter Garfield County now are foreigners from other countries, and they rent a vehicle, and on their contract it says they will be fined so much money if they go on a non-pavement road."
As we return to Escalante, we’re stopped by a woman who seems intimidated by the road even though she’s driving a large SUV. She’s only half-joking when she asks Pat if the road gets any rougher.
Lost woman: “…would you send help or some food or something? “
Pat Shea: “We’ll send a helicopter out.”
Lost woman: “Thank you. Enjoy your jiggle out. See ya.”
Garfield County’s grant application with the Federal Highway Administration is still pending. It might be approved as soon as this fall. Even if it is, funding constraints mean it could still be several years before the ride to Hole-in-the-Rock gets any smoother.