January/ February 2014 How the West Was Reinvented

Nudged by Bill Clinton, an economy based more on recreation than extraction is transforming the rural West.

By Ryan Cooper

No country for old industries: In the twenty-first century, the American West is increasingly taking advantage of its most lasting resource: its spectacular natural beauty.

A strange thing happened in Escalante, Utah, during the government shutdown last fall. The town, a remote community of fewer than 800 souls perched on a high desert plain around a trickle of water called the Escalante River, is surrounded on all sides by the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, two million federally protected acres of rugged, visually breathtaking sandstone wilderness larger than the state of Delaware. Because the monument is so vast, pierced by several highways and county roads, it was virtually uncloseable during the shutdown. So when thousands of tourists were turned away from the more famous national parks in the region—Zion, Arches, Grand Canyon—they made their way to Escalante to salvage their vacations. And Escalante had its best October on record, its small business owners making out like mule dealers in a gold rush. “Hotels were chock-a-block with tourists,” says Brent Cottam, a gas station and Subway owner in town.

Escalante’s boomlet during the shutdown was only the latest episode in a longer tale of the town’s unexpected economic growth due to decisions in far-off Washington, D.C. And its story is itself part of a much larger transformation that has been creeping across the American West for decades, as a new recreation economy centered around tourism edges out an older extractive economy that relied on mining, timber, drilling, and ranching. It’s a shift not just in the type of jobs available, but in the political landscape of the entire region.

In Escalante’s case, the story starts in September 1996, when President Bill Clinton was faced with a dilemma. It was high campaign season, and for most of his first term he and environmentalists had been fighting a rearguard action to prevent the development of the massive coal deposits on the Kaiparowitz Plateau, a high bench in southern Utah notable for its Cretaceous-era fossils. Fed up with the squabbling and eager to lock up the environmentalist vote, Clinton decided to end the debate in one bold stroke: using the authority vested in the executive branch under the Antiquities Act, he declared the Kaiparowitz, as well as a huge swath of the surrounding region, a national monument. Unlike a national park, some grazing and timber sales would still be allowed, but the coal would be off-limits forever.

Clinton’s decision was bitterly opposed by most of the citizens of Escalante, who were eager for the extra jobs and wage growth that many hoped would come with a giant new coal-mining operation. And in Washington, Republicans reacted to what they saw not only as a classically liberal decision to sacrifice jobs on the altar of the environment but also as an underhanded abuse of executive power. They complained that the White House had prepared the monument plans in secret. Even the Utah congressional delegation wasn’t notified until twenty-four hours beforehand. To add insult to injury, Clinton held the dedication ceremony on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which is in Arizona and dozens of miles from any part of the new monument. Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, said it was “something that I think would happen in the former Soviet Union or some Third World dictatorship.” Brent Griffin, who owns a grocery store in Escalante, still remembers the move today. “The way they did it was awful sneaky,” he says.

But much to the surprise of many, it wasn’t long before the recreational industry in Escalante began to take off. Grant Johnson, who ran an outfitting business in the area from 1991 to 2012, says that after the land was designated there was a dramatic and sustained increase in bookings. Before the monument “it was hard to fill trips,” he said. “But after, we had waiting lists.”

Overall, things have worked out fairly well around the monument. Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit consulting firm, estimates that in surrounding communities, from the designation in 1996 to 2008, “population increased by 8.3 percent, jobs by 37.6 percent, real personal income by 40.3 percent, and real per capita income by 29.6 percent.”

This is at odds with the axis of debate back in 1996, which turned on the virtue of environmental preservation versus the economic benefits of coal development. The Kaiparowitz contains an estimated sixty-two billion tons of coal, up to 20 percent of which might have been economically recovered. Before the national monument designation, a Dutch firm called Andalex had been drawing up plans for a large mine on these deposits, while environmentalists argued that jobs thus obtained were not worth despoiling beautiful countryside and the smog created by burned coal.

It is true that there are many jobs to be had in the extractive industry. According to the oil and gas industry’s largest trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, the industry supported 2.6 million direct jobs and $203.6 billion in labor income in 2011, while according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the coal industry supports about 90,000 jobs. And it should be noted that these jobs are of a kind that is vanishingly rare these days: they require a high school education or less, and though they are often dangerous, they pay well enough to support a family.

But the economic benefits of an extraction economy are not as one-sided as the extractive industries and their allies would have you believe. There is a lot of money in the recreation economy as well—and it’s much more sustainable over a long period of time. While the extractive industries tend to follow a boom-and-bust cycle, the recreation industry is more consistently reliable. Its booms aren’t as dramatic, but neither are its busts.

A study commissioned by the Outdoor Industry Association estimated that the recreation economy drives $646 billion in consumer spending and creates 6.1 million jobs directly. A 2011 National Park Service study concluded that spending by park visitors supported 251,600 jobs, $30.1 billion in sales, $9.34 billion in labor income, and $16.5 billion in value added. From another angle, a Headwaters study found that western non-metro counties have a per capita income that is $436 greater for every 10,000 acres of protected public lands within their boundaries.

While there’s always reason to be skeptical of self-justifying research, there are other factors that indicate that the recreation economy is doing well. In 2012, the National Parks saw almost 283 million visitors, and the National Forests saw about 160 million. There are no system-wide visitor statistics for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land—indeed, it is probably not possible to rigorously survey their nearly 250 million acres—but the number of annual visitors is undoubtedly quite large as well. And that number of visitors is bound to bring in a fair amount of cash.

The strengths and pitfalls of each model of rural development are well illustrated by two other small Utah towns: Vernal and Moab.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


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