A Monumental Opportunity for Grassroots Economic Development

Prose by Rebecca Robinson + Photos by Stephen Strom

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Bears Ears: A Series Set in Southeast Utah


This post is the fifth in a series on the designation of Bears Ears National Monument and the debate surrounding its future and the economic future of the communities in southeast Utah.
New to the Bears Ears saga? Read the August 2016 feature by Rebecca Robinson and Stephen Strom on the people and politics behind the monument creation and opposition, as well as their recent Letter to America.
The narrative that investing in tourism infrastructure to promote places like Bears Ears National Monument will threaten traditional ways of making a living is powerful and pervasive. Exhibit A: the characterization of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments as massive federal land grabs that have decimated or soon will devastate the local economy by replacing well-paying mining and ranching jobs with minimum-wage, low-skill work flipping burgers and cleaning hotel rooms for wealthy tourists.

There are many reasons why a small but vocal minority of Utahns adhere to this narrative—attachment to industries that form a large part of their cultural identity; nostalgia for times when legacy industries were booming and brought prosperity to the area; and a belief, reinforced by elected leaders, that those industries will reverse their decline and make the county’s economy great again. (Hear more from San Juan County residents here.)

These reasons are understandable, and should not be discounted. But they also ignore some undeniable facts:

  1. Tourism is an $887 billion-a-year industry that supports over seven million American jobs.
  2. In Utah, tourism spending in 2015 provided an $8.1 billion boost to the state’s economy.
  3. As stated in the Utah Economic Council’s 2017 report to the Governor, “Utah’s natural resource extractive industries remain a drag on revenues.”
  4. In San Juan County proper, the number of mining jobs declined precipitously between 2015 and 2016, while the number of hospitality jobs increased significantly.
  5. While it is possible that the Trump administration’s appetite for oil and gas may well spark increased activity in the U.S., the industry’s fate is ultimately determined by the international market; the resources are finite; and the renewable energy market is experiencing rapid growth.
  6. National monuments have contributed to, not inhibited, economic growth in adjacent communities—including those neighboring Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Ashley Korenblat has been working overtime to ensure that facts trump fiction. As executive director of the nonprofit Public Land Solutions, she oversaw the creation of a whitepaper, released last month, which argues that San Juan County should be proactive in developing a locally driven economic development plan that takes advantage of the opportunity presented by the designation of Bears Ears in a way that respects the local culture and existing industries.

“The recreation economy is coming to San Juan County,” says Korenblat, who owns Western Spirit Cycling in Moab. “They can do all they want to try to stop it, but it’s already happening. What they do have the opportunity to do is to shape it and control it and turn it into what they want it to become.”

The Dirty Devil River.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

The report notes that tourism is not the sole reason the recreation economy is booming. The Internet has made it possible for people to work from anywhere. Wilderness enthusiasts, solitude seekers, even entire companies not tethered to a specific location can relocate to areas with abundant recreation opportunities, like San Juan County.

“A big part of what we’re doing is trying to help elected officials understand that the problem is not federal land management, the problem is not monument designation, the problem is macroeconomics of the 21st century,” Korenblat says.

Jennifer Davila grew up in Bluff, a town of roughly 250 people in southern San Juan County and site of the July 2016 public meeting in which former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell heard passionate arguments from both sides of the monument debate. Davila returned after college to help run Wild Rivers Expeditions with her father, Charlie DeLorme, the county’s former economic development director (read his story here). After the family sold the company to Jared Berrett of Blanding-based Four Corners Adventures, Davila saw an opportunity to start a boutique hotel in Bluff. In 2013, she and her husband opened La Posada Pintada, an 11-room bed and breakfast that quickly became a favorite base from which European visitors could explore the national parks and monuments in the area.

Davila is a strong supporter of Bears Ears National Monument because she sees the potential for her community to capitalize on its promise before outside companies descend on the county to reap the benefits of the monument designation.

“A lot of us in Bluff have been supportive of the monument from the beginning in hopes that we can ‘get in on it,’” Davila says. “We want to be in on the ground floor and develop that monument into something we can all be proud of instead of something that we all end up hating.”

Raplee Ridge in rainstorm
Raplee Ridge in rainstorm.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

Getting locals who oppose the monument to participate in developing its management plan will be difficult, especially in the wake of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s visit to Utah earlier this month, which has raised hopes among some opponents that he may recommend rescinding Bears Ears. But Korenblat says that serving on the Local Advisory Committee outlined in the monument proclamation could be a powerful vehicle for local control—something nearly all monument opponents say they want, and fervently believe they were denied when the monument was declared.

“If they really don’t want people there, they have an opportunity through the management plan of the monument to limit or go for low user days in every category,” Korenblat says. “There’s lots of ways that communities can take charge of public land without owning it.”

Too often, conversations about tourism and economic development overlook or exclude Native voices. But there are efforts underway to support and grow Native-led businesses and empower traditional artists to market and sell their work in strategic and culturally appropriate ways.

Utah Diné Bikéyah, the Native-led group whose years of work documenting the cultural resources in Bears Ears laid the foundation for the Bears Ears National Monument proposal, recently received a $400,00 grant from ArtPlace America. The grant willsupport community dialogues around a future not dependent on extractive resource development, that is instead driven by local sustainable economic solutions and the strengths of the diverse Native American Tribes who live or share ancestry to San Juan County.”

Gavin Noyes, Utah Diné Bikéyah’s executive director, says the ArtPlace grant is a “really great way to put something behind our talk of economic development,” particularly as it relates to opportunities for economic growth tied to the monument. By placing arts and culture at the heart of its “Traditional Arts of Bears Ears” proposal, Utah Diné Bikéyah seeks to celebrate Native contributions to the county’s cultural heritage, as well as to empower local artisans to build sustainable businesses that allow them to support themselves and provide a model for other county residents to seek opportunities beyond the oil fields.

Aerial view of Raplee Ridge
Aerial view of Raplee Ridge.
Photo by Stephen Strom, with thanks to Light Hawk Conservation Flying.

Jessica Stago manages the Native American Business Incubator Network (NABIN) at Grand Canyon Trust. NABIN provides Native entrepreneurs with the knowledge, tools, and technical assistance they need to succeed as business owners: from marketing and business law workshops to one-on-one mentorship.

While Stago does not work closely with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, she recognizes the opportunity the new national monument presents for Native business owners and artisans who live in San Juan County—if the local people are allowed to direct the trajectory of the tourism economy.

Jessica Stago
Jessica Stago of NABIN.
Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Trust.

Stago, who is Navajo and spent part of her childhood on the Navajo reservation, is familiar with the numerous obstacles facing aspiring or current Native entrepreneurs: widespread poverty, substandard infrastructure, and lack of financing, That’s where NABIN comes in.

“There’s a whole space that’s growing right now for Native entrepreneurship that we didn’t have just a few years ago,” Stago says. “Almost on a daily basis, I get an email that says, ‘I heard about what you’re doing, here’s what I’m doing.’ It’s becoming sort of a movement.”

“We need to make sure that we provide . . . our customer base with the best services possible, [while recognizing] the sacredness of the area and the uniqueness of the area,” Stago says. “It’s for the benefit of all people, but the local community has to be the one to manage it, because they know best the spirit of the land, they know what happens to the land when it rains, they know what happens when it doesn’t rain. . . . [S]hould we bring more people in or should we not? Should we [endorse] this activity or limit this activity? They can gauge the economic benefit of those decisions.”

Like Korenblat, Stago believes that the best way for the communities in San Juan County to reap the economic benefits of tourism and recreation is to develop a plan that reflects local knowledge and culture.

“Really, that’s the most stable kind of economic development,” Stago says. “It’s not dependent on the whims of outside markets; it’s not dependent on funding from the federal government.”

Next in the Series: For all of San Juan County’s economic struggles, perhaps the most wrenching challenge its citizens face is how to heal the multigenerational wounds that were reopened during the national monument campaign. Can pro- and anti-monument groups put aside their differences and find a way to work together to define the county’s future?



Rebecca RobinsonRebecca Robinson is a Portland, Oregon-based writer. She has written for numerous print and online news outlets about crime, education, health care, social entrepreneurs, California’s prisons, state and federal medical marijuana laws, and homelessness, among other topics. She began her work on the manuscript for Views from the Colorado Plateau at the 2015 Fishtrap Summer Gathering of Writers. Currently a freelancer, Rebecca previously worked as a staff writer for Monterey County Weekly and a radio producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Stephen StromStephen Strom spent 45 years as a research astronomer after receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in astronomy from Harvard. He began photographing in 1978, after studying the history of photography and silver and non-silver photography at the University of Arizona. His work has been exhibited widely throughout the U.S. and is held in several permanent collections, including the Center for Creative Photography and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His photography complements poems and essays in three books published by the University of Arizona Press–Secrets from the Center of the World, Sonoita Plain, and Tseyi / Deep in the Rock—and Otero Mesa (University of New Mexico Press, 2008). A monograph, Earth Forms, was published in 2009 by Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Header photo of White Canyon by Stephen Strom, with thanks to Light Hawk Conservation Flying. Photo of Rebecca Robinson by Peter Crabtree. Photo of Stephen Strom courtesy Stephen Strom. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.