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taking towns

Rural RESIDENTS rely on the land, not just for a living, but for the way they live
their lives. Now there are all new rules that take away all that.

By Tim Findley


In a one-room log house the size of a pantry, Quinn Griffin manages his struggling real estate business. It isn’t going well these dreary days in Escalante, Utah, and Griffin would sooner be out at his ranch anyway, doing the work learned over lifetimes of his own family.

Griffin’s name can be found everywhere in the two blocks of Main Street falling into the deep flat from all the surrounding high fortresses of cliffs and mesas. In the supermarket his uncle owns, in the hair salon run by his sister-in-law. The little cafe, the gift shop, the town garage, all can find some link to Griffin. Escalante, like a lot of Mormon settlements in Utah and elsewhere in the West, was built by families that multiplied and sent branches blooming elsewhere but always held fast in its stable roots.

Quinn turned his head slowly from side to side, chin down, choking back the regret. “Last week,” he says, “I sent a rifleman up there to finish off the last of them. He killed 27, and he was ill when he came back.”

They were the last of the Griffin cattle still on summer range in the broad mesa top known as “The 50,” and they had been spotted by the helicopter patrols of federal authorities from the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument. Only a steep narrow trail, difficult in summer, deadly in the deep winter of this February, leads down from The 50 to lower pasture. The monument authorities gave Griffin a choice: remove his cattle all the way into town at once or federal helicopters would pick them up one by one in slings at a charge to him of $585 per animal. Already, from the bitter pressures put upon him since last summer, Griffin stands to owe the federal government more than $50,000 for just such removals as well as “trespass” fines on his allotment. “No choice,” Griffin says, turning his head again. “No choice really.”

“It’s a major tragedy,” says Kate Cannon, without flickering from the positive upbeat public relations persona she practices as manager of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument based some 200 miles west in Kanab. Cannon, as the first of her kind in hybrid federal management mixing Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Park Service (NPS), knows she is the archetype being watched as the model for her counterparts in 14 more

Rancher Quinn Griffin “I sent a rifleman up there to finish off the last of them.”
The monument authorities gave Quinn Griffin a choice: remove his cattle all the way into town at once or federal helicopters would pick them up one by one in slings at a charge to him of $585 per animal. Already, from the bitter pressures put upon him since last summer, Griffin stands to owe the federal government more than $50,000 for just such removals as well as “trespass” fines on his allotment.

monuments designated by President Bill Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt before they left office. She has had at least four years experience. The others must learn from it.

“A tragedy,” she says, but she means the cattle, not the place, nor its people.

Another 200 miles east of Escalante, Chester Tozer pulls his pickup off the narrow asphalt leading to remote parts of the Navajo reservation and stops in the trace of a road from which crudely chiseled blocks of stone stacked against the canyon side clearly mark the site of some kind of structure. They could be mistaken for the work of the ancient ones, the Anasazi, who built the great stone villages of Mesa Verde not far from here before simply vanishing sometime around the 14th century. But the tumbled rock ruins where Chester walks are not that. They are the remains of the first home built by his grandparents in 1893 in this canyon some 50 miles south of Cortez, Colo.

Chester, a former Marine who earned medals driving an ambulance in Korea, lived in this house himself as a child. His son and daughter now have their own places along the same road, but further along it, a nephew is the first among the family wanting to sell.

Tozer can see more of that coming, that’s why he is head of the Southwest Colorado Landowners Association waging a paper war to halt the spread of federal domination over the lands of the ancients. Their remains are nearby, too, up a steep two-track lane through red soil deep into the canyons where they were first discovered and left untouched by cowboys of his grandfather’s time. There is a flimsy federal fence around this remote Anasazi site, the only one known for scores of miles around, but the fence gives up easily to visitors. The miniature Mesa Verde built near a spring still stands undisturbed, except by occasional federal archeologists now given greater authority under terms of the new Anasazi Monument region, another Clinton-Babbitt legacy. “I’d rather they just left them alone,” says Tozer. “It’s like digging in a family grave.”

Cortez has fared better under the reach of monument-making than has Escalante, or at least the effect is not noticeable on the busy main street that links the ski areas of Durango and Telluride to the junctions for Four Corners and Mesa Verde. Cortez knows tourists and their fast-food tastes a little better. It’s in the more somber halls of the Montezuma County Court House where the divisions sulk against the better instincts of the community, divided now not over the monument but over how to reduce its size and impact. Neighbors and friends contend with each other over that. Less, so far, is the cost to the economy than is the loss of mutual trust.

Escalante and Cortez are only two of many small towns that lie within the combined stretch of more than two million acres set aside by executive authority in the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments. Neither one of them had virtually any local or official state support, but in neither case did Babbitt have any intention of letting the people stop him.

Evidence, some of it illusionary perhaps, suggests that what Babbitt and his apparatus really intended was to link them both in a great, nearly unbroken swath of federal monument control from Four Corners across the Grand Canyon and nearly to the California border. It was almost accomplished.

In 1991, at the 75th anniversary of the National Park Service and at the dawn of a new Clinton era in federal administration, major funding groups such as the Pew Charitable Trust and the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored a spring workshop session in the poshly off-season setting of Vail, Colo. The resulting “Vail Agenda,” worked out with the guidance of top executives from The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, set a series of recommendations that would become directives in modernizing the NPS. First among them was to create a highly professional Park Service branch of the federal Interior Department. Dedicated, strictly trained people would be needed to oversee not only new management of existing parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, but of expanding influence into “heritage zones” and “gateway communities.”

“Recommendation–The National Park Service should reestablish an areas study program, covering both natural and heritage resources and charged with initiating and responding to proposals for park system additions. This program could be based in the Office of Strategic Planning.

“...The NPS should encourage the development of private sector visitor services in the gateway communities, so as to contribute to local economic development, encourage competition, increase choices for visitors and minimize the need for in-park facilities.

“...The Secretary [of the Interior] should clarify existing authorities, ensure their appropriate and consistent use, and seek additional legislation necessary to protect park services against external threats.”

Within a year, the grand scheme of a newly conscious American park system was seen to fit in with a series of international concords directed at environmental protection. The Vail Agenda was carried first to Caracas, Venezuela, and a meeting of the IUCN, the so-called World Conservation Union (see sidebar, page 37), then, within a year, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development. It was by then in the able custody of a staff member from senator, then vice president, Al Gore’s office, Katy McGinty.

“...The NPS should identify those domestic resources that require international cooperation for effective management, protection and interpretation, and implement international strategies to manage, protect, and interpret such resources.”

By the end of the first term of the Clinton administration, Escalante and all Garfield County in Utah had felt the gray heat of something bearing down on their remote yet spectacularly challenging landscape. All Southern Utah with its auburn gorges and sienna arches could seem breathtaking, each new vista holding some ancient mystery yearning to be solved. The Escalantes and their terraced mesas were not perhaps as awesome as Bryce Canyon or Zion, but everyone knew they held great riches of their own, including perhaps the most valuable deposits in the world of low sulfur coal. With other oil and mineral deposits, it is likely the richest treasure held in all of Utah.

The area seemed to have been newly discovered at the beginning of the decade by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) which sent its representatives into the regions around Escalante with worried talk about what mineral and coal exploration by such companies as Conoco might do to the pristine wilderness. But SUWA didn’t want just the Escalantes. It wanted five million acres over virtually all the south state to be wilderness.

For their part, ranchers like Quinn Griffin had been troubled for years by mysterious fires that destroyed line shacks, and incidents when fences had been pulled out and cattle shot. No one was ever arrested but there were suspicions, especially when the crimes seemed to come around the time of spring break from universities.

In mid-September of 1996 as the gun lap of the presidential campaign began, rumors were circulating in Garfield County that something was about to happen. The SUWA people had strangely disappeared but left behind eavesdropped clues of something–soon.

In the little town of Tropic, between Kanab and Escalante, Garfield County News publisher Katie Thomas became more and more troubled by the rumors. At last, she called SUWA headquarters in Salt Lake City. To her surprise the call was referred to Katy McGinty, who told the editor with a giggle, “We’re on our way to the Grand Canyon.”

That enigmatic hint was at least more than any elected state or federal representative from Utah received. Two days later, President Bill Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt showed up on the north rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. It was here they proclaimed the Grand Staircase Escalante as the first in a series of “heritage” sites Clinton would take under the arbitrary powers of the Antiquities Act.

It was purposely done hundreds of miles from the heart of the actual monument and apart from any local participation. Not even Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who called it “the mother of all land grabs,” knew it was about to happen. On the podium with Clinton perhaps only Katy McGinty had actually ever even been to the region. She had spent some time there in 1995 as a guest of SUWA Director Ken Rait. McGinty, who on behalf of SUWA had answered an editor’s query, was by then chairperson of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. The only notable Utah resident with the President that day of the announcement in Arizona was actor Robert Redford.

It has been nearly five years. Too late now to surprise anyone with a suggestion of Clinton corruption in taking the coal out of production in exchange for campaign funds from the Indonesian Lippo Group, and too late to hold McGinty accountable for what seemed obvious collusion and even fraud in arranging the grab with the help of environmental radicals. Too late for the cattle given to coyotes on “The 50.”

But in Escalante, where this winter’s late storms promise to break a year-long drought, there still rises hope and even rebellion. Steve Gessig remembers well those times nearly 20 years ago now when ranchers were reporting line shacks burned and fences torn up. He remembers that as the sort of acts perpetrated by eco-terrorist David Foreman’s “Earth First!,” and he knows it’s true because he was a member.

More than 20 years ago, while a nonstudent resident of Berkeley, Calif., Gessig became carried away with the rebel romanticism of Foreman’s “monkey wrench” tactics to “save” the environment. He still carried those ideals when he moved to Escalante, and he soon found kindred spirits among other young newcomers there who admitted to him that they had other motives. But Gessig also found an unexpected simple truth in his new surroundings. “The people were kind to me,” he says. “They invited me into their homes for dinner. And as we talked, I began to see that they had a real love for the land and a sense of family about sharing it.”

Louise Liston is Quinn Griffin’s mother-in-law. She is a formidably intelligent and organized woman who served for 14 years as a Garfield County commissioner, the last 10 of that in a nearly continuous struggle to preserve the values of land rights use in an area already almost totally federally owned.

“Ohh, the famous Louise Liston,” Secretary Babbitt said sarcastically to her when they met in Washington, D.C. in 1995 during a session of the National Association of Counties of which Liston served as chairperson of the Public Lands Committee.

Liston had heard the rumors too in 1996, but her congressional contacts assured her that “nothing was imminent.” When it happened, she says, “It was devastating.” In a university-sponsored conference on the monument three years later, Liston confirmed her original reaction to the “nightmare” that has left Garfield County increasingly destitute in funding and, more importantly, despairing in spirit.

“Rural communities rely on the land,” she says, “not just for a living, but for the way they live their lives. The monument has taken away all flexibility, not just grazing and mining, but wood gathering or Christmas tree cutting or family outings, even boy scouts on hikes. Now there are all new rules that take away all that. There’s such animosity now, so much bitterness.”

In her monument conference statement, she quoted a 93-year-old lifelong resident of Escalante who said, “This is the poorest time of my life. Before the monument, people were happier. Now everybody is finding fault with everybody else.”

These were the kind of people Gessig was coming to know in his new awakening to a rural lifestyle. Gradually, from radical environmentalist he turned to becoming a tireless activist in the cause of multiple use. Together with fresh younger ranchers and residents of the area he began to try to organize a movement of their own. It was Gessig and his friend, rancher Myron Carter, who built the sign greeting the west end of town with an urge for membership in People for the USA. Together, Gessig and Carter organized Escalante’s first rally, and brought out nearly the entire town in support of Griffin and other ranchers.

In Cortez, as Clinton’s second term built momentum, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt made what would become his standard threat all over the West. Babbitt wanted the Anasazi, and if the people of Montezuma County would not do it his way, he would do it alone. Just as Louise Liston and the Garfield County commissioners had tried and ultimately failed in Utah, the Colorado community sought help from their own Congressional representatives, especially Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who was considered to have so much contempt for Babbitt that it was one reason he left the Democratic Party.

Senator Campbell’s plan was to thwart Babbitt’s power grab with legislation declaring the Anasazi region a National Conservation Area (NCA) with provisions that would guarantee continued multiple use.

Rancher Chester Tozer
“It’s like digging
in a family grave.”
Chester Tozer leads the Southwest Colorado Landowners Assn. and is waging a paper war to halt the spread of federal domination over the Anasazi lands of the ancients. “I’d rather they just left them alone.”

That troubled ranchers like Chester Tozer. Much of the Anasazi was already designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), warning visitors away from its archeological treasures. In other parts of the West where NCAs were introduced, the experience had been rapidly tightening bureaucratic control, shutting out grazing especially.

“If an NCA were passed by Congress,” Tozer says, “it would be almost impossible to overturn it. We had to do something else. We had to call Babbitt’s bluff and then fight against the monument status as an arbitrary and excessive act.”

Montezuma County was thus divided in its general opposition to Babbitt’s arrogance. One side led by the Cortez-dominated commission urging Campbell to act, the other, led by the ranchers and including the signatures of some 3,500 residents, insisting that way led to doom for their interests. Disappointed, Campbell backed off. In Montezuma County the divisions between neighbors would only deepen.

There was little doubt among those watching that what Babbitt really intended was to declare an even greater slab of the southwest Colorado landscape crossing the border into southeast Utah a part of the Anasazi, thus nearly linking it to the Grand Staircase Escalante already in place.

In Escalante it had begun more than 15 years before in a dispute over a road. The Burr Trail is an historic east-west track cut across the canyons by the early Mormons. Locals still use the half-paved road, in part for adventure and in part as a needed shortcut. When the county first sought to make mild repairs, adding a culvert and straightening a curve on one section of the road, they had the support of the BLM. The opposition came from the surprising strength of the newly emerging SUWA environmentalists who launched a lawsuit against the county and the BLM to prevent any road repairs at all. The suit remains unsettled even today.

But in the small eastern Utah border town of Monticello, San Juan County officials took careful note of the tactics. San Juan County had been one of the first counties in the West to prepare themselves in the l990s for the green propaganda onslaught. Ed Scherick, the former BLM superintendent for the region, was hired as director of Personnel and Planning, a title that explained little of his duties in protecting local rights. Scherick could see what was coming from the Anasazi and he knew the game. In a novel tactic to block what he expected, Scherick began advertising all over the county for citizens who had old family photos taken along county roads or at favorite picnic spots. He sent another former BLM staffer, Earl C. Hindley, to the University of Utah and elsewhere to search out more photos. In each case the site of the old photo was relocated and photographed again.

The results were astonishing. Not only did the old photographs going back as far as 1895 establish county use and control, in every one of 51 photographs matched, the new images showed convincingly that the condition of the range in grasses, sage and riparian areas had greatly improved from management over the last half century especially. The book published by Scherick and San Juan County was key evidence in the case they began establishing against more federal intrusion. In Washington, D.C. last June, President Clinton followed Babbitt’s recommendation and proclaimed the region, including some 18,000 acres of private property and some of the most productive CO2 gas deposits in the country, part of the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. It covers 164,000 acres of federal land but stops just short of the Utah border.

Six months after its designation, Kate Cannon had won the job of Escalante Monument manager from her position as a Park Service superintendent in South Dakota. It seemed almost textbook to the Vail Agenda. In her office at Kanab, Cannon still spins with enthusiasm for what she regards as “a new look” in “public lands management.” She supersedes the authority of BLM officials still in place on lands overwhelmed by the monument and guides them in the direction of new policy toward what she calls “applied science,” for which she admits there is so far “no rule book.”

It was something like that which prompted her to use evidence from the drought last year to demand that Quinn Griffin and two other ranchers immediately bring their cattle down from high summer range. Cannon has the law and what she calls her “science” on her side. Griffin wisely kept a journal telling more of the story.

“It was public land before and it’s public land now,” says Cannon. “All I did was apply the rules that already existed. I know these are difficult allotments that require huge effort. It’s a matter of who is up to it.”

Quinn Griffin’s agony leading to tragedy began in the piercing heat of last summer’s drought when monument authorities declared that continued presence of cattle on the high ranges would be ecologically devastating. By August he was directed to reduce his numbers of cattle by half. The following are excerpts from Griffin’s personal journal:

“Aug. 6–Trailed cattle to Willow Tank.... A cow and heifer died because of the heat, distance and lack of water. We normally just gather and shove them off to the next lowest level, but BLM closed our winter permit, forcing us to take them to town. First time in 30 years we’ve had to do this.

“Aug. 18–Received notification that all cattle had to be removed by Sept. 1. We protested, saying there was still the problem of heat and distance and subjecting cattle to this would be inhumane.... Denied.

“Sept. 6–Broke u-joint on truck. Sept. 7–Returned home that day to learn grandson hospitalized with [E. coli] infection. Criticized by BLM for not staying to gather cattle. “Sept. 15–Lost some leaders in dense trees. Country rough. Another two head died.”

All through September and October he and his wranglers urged the cattle down the narrow trails, unable to rest them at bench stops closed by the feds.

“Oct. 13–Received trespass notice, tried to respond to BLM and media.

“Oct. 20-23–Rain and fog. Rained all night. Led Mary’s calf back in cold black wetness. Supper at 10:30 p.m.

“Oct. 24–Patch fog and occasional rain. Shot two head. One ol’ cow had some age on her. Gentle, but too late in the evening to get her to the Lake rather than the BLM finding her out there and having to pay $1,000 for her, I chose to put her down....”

And so it went into winter, cattle dying from the stress of heat or the threat of fines or the bitterness of an unfair season, and all but the impossible-to-reach town corrals denied to Griffin’s desperate effort to save what he could, until finally, his and other ranchers’ cattle were snatched and virtually stolen in helicopter slings sent by the monument. Feed and forage on the winter range where the cattle would naturally have gone remained strong but denied to Griffin’s use. He had the last of his cattle on “The 50” shot from a helicopter.

Last winter and this spring, Steve Gessig has been making frequent trips across the high peaks of the Dixie Forest into Blanding and Monticello, Utah, and on over to Cortez where he meets with Chester Tozer and a newer growing group of experienced researchers, including former federal employees who have supplied him with such documents as the Vail Agenda. The network of mutual information is expanding to similar monument areas in Oregon and California, and leading toward hoped-for Congressional hearings on the truth behind the Babbitt-Clinton land grabs here and elsewhere. There are still long battles to come.

In Kanab, the sawmills are all but gone. One still survives in Escalante, but only with private timber harvested 200 miles away. Smaller jobs in painting or house repair or even retail sales are fading with the absence of core employment in mining or agriculture. A few newcomers have cautiously opened little bed and breakfast stops or small shops, but it is still largely a remote Mormon region, unlikely to bow to some tourist attractions that would go against the community grain. Passing motorists hardly need leave the pump or talk to anyone to fill their gas tanks. There are only so many trinkets that can be sold in a region now overloaded with them, and ironically, under new monument rules visitors are restricted from entering the more remote areas many came to see. The jobs left in the “gateway communities” invented in the “Vail Agenda” are in tourism or in the federal government. The little towns are losing their identities.

Out of office, but still arrogantly speaking as if he has the will of the American people behind him, Bruce Babbitt scoffs that there is “no way, no chance” his monuments will ever be undone. These, he declared over and over in his cynical speeches, were meant for our future, our children.

In Escalante, with the loss of mineral exploration and other funding, they worry over the future of their schools and over how they will afford the safety, rescue, and police services still necessary for the tourists alone. And in Cortez as much as in Escalante there is the brooding sense that what is lost most in the continuing debate is the sense of family that once made their place so special.

In a February letter to Chester Tozer, the Montezuma County Commissioners once again refused to support him and Southwest Landowners in overturning the Anasazi Monument, calling it a hopeless task and bitterly blaming Tozer for not supporting an NCA.

“It is our hope,” the letter concludes, “that you will broaden your mission and approach so that we can work together in the future.”

So far, Bruce Babbitt has won.

This isn’t close to the end of the story. Reporter Findley has more new monuments to visit and more questions to be answered in finding the truth to the Clinton legacy.

Related stories in this Special Section by Tim Findley:

Like Circling Buzzards, NGO's Wait

Can the People Be Heard?

Don't Accept Lies, Look at the Facts

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