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Blake Spalding and Jen Castle opened the doors of Hell's Backbone Grill in 1999, drawn to the remote town of Boulder by their love of wilderness and the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Their business, as well as the adjacent Boulder Lodge, has flourished, and when I visited a few weeks ago, the restaurant was full with the booming tourism season just gearing up.

Business has more than doubled in the last three years as a portion of the nearly million visitors drawn to the monument each year stop in for a bite at the only restaurant in the state to be in contention for the prestigious James Beard Award.

Spalding and Castle employ 45 people between the restaurant and their organic farm where they grow their own ingredients, and pay $700,000 in wages — a significant boost to the economy in the town of about 200 people.

You'd think it's the type of information that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke might want to hear as he visits the area to assess the impact of both the Grand Staircase and the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument.


The Interior Department refused a request for Zinke to meet with Spalding and a handful of other members of the Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce, business leaders in the communities that are most affected by the decisions the secretary and President Donald Trump will make in coming weeks.

"The fact of the matter is that there isn't a business or company or school or clinic in this county that isn't hiring right now," Spalding told me this week. "So the idea that somehow Garfield County is in economic crisis because of the monument, it's alternative facts. But they are alternative facts that our county commissioners and governor are really wed to and basically, on this tour with Zinke, they're only having him interact with people that confirm his bias or the governor's bias that the monument needs to be rescinded or reduced."

Nathan Waggoner, who opened Escalante Outfitters in Escalante 11 years ago, said the chamber of commerce gathered letters of support for the monument from 150 business owners in the communities surrounding the monument and delivered them to Washington and never got any response from Zinke or the Interior Department.

"We reached out as many times as we can in as many different ways to try to talk to him and we're just concerned about the economic impact of eviscerating the national monument," said Waggoner, who now operates an outfitter, a hotel, a restaurant, on outdoor equipment store and a guide service.

While the tourism industry gets knocked for creating seasonal jobs, Waggoner said the 27 people who work for him are invested in their community, building homes and starting their own businesses.

"We really feel like our community is on the cusp of becoming something great, but because of this old anger some of these county commissioners and others harbor, they hold us back," he said.

Waggoner said his group of business owners will keep trying to convey their message to ZInke and anyone else who will listen.

When Zinke's predecessor, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, came to the region on a listening tour last year ahead of the designation of Bears Ears, she sat in a sweltering hall and heard scores of locals, for and against, voice their opinions. She met with tribal leaders who overwhelmingly supported the creation, and county commissioners who were steadfastly opposed.

Zinke did meet with the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition and Interior has announced it will accept written comments from the public. But overall, his visit comes off as more scripted, with the narrative tightly controlled to present one side of the story rather than the full picture of the stunning landscape.

And the case being made against the value of monuments is obviously subject to challenge.

Last week, Herbert's public lands director, Kathleen Clarke, was in Washington and told a House committee that monuments can severely damage local communities. I've asked the governor's office a half-dozen times since then for the evidence supporting her claim. They haven't provided any.

The common refrain among monument opponents — and, last session, the Utah Legislature — is that grazing has fallen by a third, the timber industry disappeared, and vast coal resources have been locked up.

Actually, according to recent figures, the active grazing in the monument has barely changed, aside from some grazing rights that were voluntarily retired. A lumber mill that closed in 2002 got most of its timber from the Dixie National Forest and was unrelated to the monument.

The Kaiparowits coal was and is locked up, but ask Carbon and Emery County if coal is a good bet these days. It's hard to know if that would have been developed or would be developed, given the plummeting demand, if Trump attempts to change the monument boundaries.

No doubt, rural Utah is suffering for a wide variety of reasons. But I have seen two studies of the economic impact of the Grand Staircase. One, by a pair of Utah State University faculty members critical of public lands, said the monument's a net wash.

The other, done by Headwaters Economics in 2011, said that communities around the monument, like Escalante and Boulder, saw strong growth in the number of jobs and income since the monument was designated.

That's the type of information that it might be good for Secretary Zinke to hear, the type of story that Spalding could have told him, if he was serious about learning all of the perspectives. But she's not giving up yet.

"Regardless of how it turns out, I want to say in the end I did everything I could to protect the monument," Spalding said. "I'm not going to go quietly, either, because I really believe this monument is precious. … I never thought in my lifetime that this monument would seriously be under threat or I wouldn't have staked my life's work to it.

"Now we have to fight."

Twitter: @RobertGehrke