This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Alarmed about dropping school enrollment, the Garfield County Commission on Monday declared a "state of emergency," claiming restrictive federal land-management policies are endangering the future of Escalante, Panguitch and other communities in the southern Utah county.
The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service refuse to collaborate with counties in decision-making, according to the declaration unanimously approved by the commission. Timber has been eliminated, cattle are being pushed off the range and mineral resources are sequestered in the ground.
"We need good jobs and something to sustain our community," Escalante Mayor Jerry Taylor said. "It's tough right now. Tourism is up. We promote it, but we need something more. We can't have all our eggs in one basket."
While the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is getting much of the blame, conservationists contend protected landscapes spur economic development outside ranching and traditional industries.
"The mining jobs were gone by the time the monument was created [in 1996]. They are isolated communities. Without an interstate highway it's hard to attract investment," said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "It has boiled down to a one-liner: It's all the federal government's fault. No solution will ever come from blaming the United States for the economic woes of rural areas."
Meanwhile, state data indicate that Garfield County's job numbers and unemployment today are not much different than they were 19 years ago when then-President Bill Clinton shocked southern Utah with his designation of the monument. Jobs have hovered around 2,200 and the jobless rate is 8.6 percent, the same as it was in the late 1990s, although there has been plenty of fluctuation over the years, according the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
But for Commissioner Leland Pollock, the key statistic is the plunge in Escalante's school population since the creation of the monument on the historic ranching town's doorstep. Middle and high school enrollment has dropped 67 percent, from 150 to 50.
"We don't go looking for these issues. We do everything we can to protect our people. The problem is multiple use is gone from these lands," Pollock said. "We are trying to survive. We are not anti-tourism. Our [transient room tax revenues] levels are at record levels but it's just not enough to keep kids in schools and families in our communities."
The commission's resolution "respectfully demands federal agencies in Garfield County to maximize support of local communities, schools and families to the maximum extent allowed by federal programs and law." The plea comes at a time when Utah is gearing up for a legal fight to wrest control of 30 million acres from the federal government under the belief that state ownership would allow greater resource extraction that would in turn support jobs and schools.
Garfield County, which is 93 percent federally owned, is ground zero in this fight.
The school district's superintendent, Ben Dalton, said downward enrollment trends are unsustainable, although there are no plans to close or combine schools.
Last year, the district's largest school was Panguitch Elementary, with 249 students, according to enrollment data from the Utah State Office of Education. Antimony Elementary and Boulder Elementary house 13 students and six students, respectively, and are run as one-classroom schools. As enrollment declines, the district loses economies of scale that help pay for elective classes like foreign language and other educational programs, according to Dalton.
When a 25-student classroom loses five students, the district loses funding for that classroom but still has to pay the full electrical bill and the teacher's salary, said business administrator Patty Murphy.
"You just hope there will be other [families] moving in over the summer, but what would bring them here?" she said. "What job opportunities would there be?"
The monument, which BLM administers on 1.9 million acres in Kane and Garfield counties, is a key obstacle to rural economic development, numerous local officials have alleged in testimony before Congress and elsewhere. School enrollment at Garfield's nine schools began declining when the monument was created, slipping to about 900.
Yet population has grown and overall employment has remained stable at around 2,200 jobs, according to data compiled by the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
The biggest blow to Escalante's employment came with the 2002 shuttering of the Utah Forest Products mill that once employed 65. Though this closure had nothing to do with the monument, Garfield job losses have been felt most keenly in construction and manufacturing.
Those losses have been balanced with growth in health care and the tourism sector, which covers accommodations, food, arts, entertainment and recreation. Overall payroll has climbed 50 percent, from $40.7 million to $61 million since 2001.
"It doesn't look like a place in deep trouble any more than it's ever been," Groene said.
But these numbers don't color in the whole picture, according to Garfield economic development director Justin Fischer.
The county's largest employer is Ruby's Inn outside Bryce Canyon National Park, which hires hundreds during the busy summer.
"Most of that employment is transient. They live here for a few months and send what they make back home," Fischer said.
"Leisure and hospitality bring an influx of money into your economy, but it's not the best opportunities for workers," said chief economist Carrie Mayne. "It tends to be lower paying with not as much upward mobility. It's not as helpful for workers who want to build families and career." Manufacturing and construction, the sectors that lost jobs, are good entry points for employees to gain skills and work their way up, according to Mayne.
According to Workforce Services, the county's median age has climbed six years since 2000, from 33.8 to 39.9.
"It's a significant change. Meanwhile the family size has decreased [from 3.4 persons to 3.2]," Mayne said. "The county has experienced significant outmigration. That is what could be pulling down the unemployment rate."
Fischer, who once taught math at Escalante High, believes Garfield natives move away once they get out of high school to start their careers and families in places like Richfield, St. George and Cedar City.
Garfield School District receives $2.3 million each year in state funding dedicated to small, rural schools, a supplement covering one-fourth the district's $10 million budget. But Dalton says the district's challenges can't be solved with a check from the state.
Some schools would be forced to close without the small-schools funding, but state assistance would be more beneficial in the form of targeted economic development to attract new families.
"You can give me money to keep the lights on and keep the doors open," Dalton said. "But if no students walk in, what's the point?"