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Rift Valley

Now, however, they're acting persecuted. Thayne C. Smith, president of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, recites local grievances as he drives me from the town of Kanab to the abandoned town of Pahreah, the day after my hike with Johnson. He claims that the establishment of the monument blocked a coal mine from opening, and that ranchers are being driven out by new grazing restrictions. Smith, a 78-year-old retired nurseryman, blames environmentalists for forcing a nearby sawmill and uranium company to close, keeping the region's one-horse economy depressed. But that's all part of the local song and dance. Environmentalists (along with East Coast politicians) get blamed for everything. "They keep taking things away—it gets worse all the time," Smith says.

Pahreah, established by Mormon pioneers in 1871 and destroyed by a flood 30 years later, lies in a part of the monument with spectacular sandstone formations that look like upended tiramisù. In the angling light, the colossal Vermilion Cliffs and White Cliffs glow to the northwest—two steps of the Grand Staircase, which climbs 5,000 feet in elevation over the course of 40 miles. Smithworked with the BLM to restore the town's neglected cemetery, and when we get there he points to some names on a bronze plaque. "There's my great-grandfather, and there's his wife, and here's my other great-grandfather." In all, 15 of the 17 names on the plaque are family members. "When the restoration project started five years ago," he tells me, "the BLM said, 'We'll call the shots—this is federal land,' and I said, 'Well, this is sacred ground to me.'" They haggled over every fence post since. A local witcher correctly divined where the bodies were buried, Smith says; the BLM hauled in sonar equipment but couldn't even read the results.

Smith might sound like a crank, but among southern Utahans, it's a badge to tell jokes about the BLM's incompetence, or about backpackers who come to town for a week with only a $20 bill and a pair of shorts and don't end up changing either one. Outsiders are the enemy, plain and simple. "Easterners are the ones who did us in," Smith says, and his solution is to start establishing national monuments where most Americans live. "Let's put them back East! The East ought to contribute," he says, only half joking. Historic areas of Manhattan would make fine public lands, he thinks.

In talking with BLM staffers here, I get an entirely different picture of the monument's effects. The agency's grazing specialist, who comes from an old ranching family, assures me the bureau isn't trying to force out cattle. As for the coal mine being foiled, I'm told the two companies that already had leases decided not to proceed. While locals grouse about roads being closed, the BLM argues convincingly that none have been closed yet at all.

But there does seem to be a thin new layer of bureaucratic control since the monument was established. Business owners swear that the BLM's sole intention is to drive them crazy. A rancher shows me a form asking him to list every dusty track he plans to drive on while looking after his wandering cattle. Even tourism operators are exasperated. Robert Houston, who leads pack trips into the monument, tells me he's not allowed to take more than 25 riders into Pahreah Canyon for fear of overcrowding, even though his trips have run across a grand total of six people there in a decade—four of them fish-and-game officers. Another outfitter wonders how he can tie his horses up at least 200 feet from a stream, as required by BLM rules, when the canyon is only 100 feet wide.

Then there are those who have gone beyond complaining. The couple who run the Escalante Wilderness Project have had their door kicked in, their windows broken, and their phone line cut—merely for advocating that more land be left undeveloped. The editor of the Southern Utah News had newspapers stuffed up the tailpipe of her car after writing that ranchers have been on the government dole for ages and should work with the system. Counties have sent bulldozers out to scar up wilderness areas to make sure they won't be classified as "roadless" and thus protected from further development.


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