Utah's red-rock country is like the earth turned inside out, molten and forbidding. On a hike with guide Grant Johnson through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, I scramble over ancient logs and chunks of fallen sandstone under towering burnt-orange cliffs as if through the portals of hell. "Nobody goes where we're going," says Johnson, who's still a kid at 47, with a wild shock of blond hair. "The tourists hike the canyon bottoms, but the best stuff is on top."
Not that there are many tourists to begin with. Grand Staircase-Escalante was declared a national monument by President Clinton in 1996, one of 15 he established. At nearly 3,000 square miles, it's more than twice as big as Utah's five national parks combined, and it contains the same kind of unearthly red-rock formations that you'd find in Bryce and Zion, Arches and Canyonlands—just a whole lot more of them, and without the distraction of people. But Grand Staircase-Escalante is so off the map—and so new—that it can lay claim to only one marked trail.
Johnson and I hike up through millions of years of geological time to a high outcropping. The varnished cliffs of the Wingate formation loom behind us; in front, a madly colored panorama of badlands stretches toward the snowy Henry Mountains. The beauty of the place is overwhelming, indisputable—and strangely out of sync with the hostility the monument has engendered among the people who live and work in this area. The ranching communities here are devoutly Mormon and socially conservative, and Escalante's designation as a national monument—which affords it less protection from development than a national park—has inflamed age-old resentments about outsiders trying to tell them how to use the land. These bad feelings have almost guaranteed that the locals won't rush to accommodate tourists with new facilities—and that the visitor's experience, for better or worse, will remain elemental.
Until Clinton created the national monument (and he didn't dare set foot in Utah but announced it from the safety of the Grand Canyon), no one wanted this part of the West except the hardscrabble descendants of the pioneer Mormon families sent forth by Brigham Young in the 1870's. A maze of blistering rock riven with impenetrable canyons and blessed with a few heavenly green valleys, it was the last part of the United States to be mapped. Today, only 10,000 people live in Garfield and Kane counties, an area larger than Massachusetts.
When it comes to land-use issues, those people can be as intense and fiery as their surroundings. Johnson, who moved here from Wisconsin in his teens, remembers that back in the 1980's, local enemies of the environmental movement hanged him in effigy for helping to found a wilderness advocacy group. "I asked the sheriff why he didn't take it down. He said, 'Because I helped hang it up!'"
The federal government owns 91 percent of the land in Garfield and Kane counties; ranchers have always needed permits to graze their cattle. So have those who wanted to explore for oil or coal. Historically across the West, the Bureau of Land Management—which oversaw this acreage prior to 1996 and now runs the monument—has served the interests of ranchers and miners. In turn, they have come to regard public lands as their own backyards—and have abused them at times through practices like overgrazing.