Much has happened in the 20 years since the designation, but the controversy still remains. The Utah State legislature recently approved a resolution calling for the sprawling monument (nearly 3,000 square miles) to be cut back.
The designation stopped development of large coal reserves on the Kaiparowits Plateau, altered the demographics of the small town of Escalante, and attracted visitors from near and far.
Grand Staircase is the first national monument to be managed by an agency other than the National Park Service (NPS). The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the monument
through a headquarters office in Kanab.
As a multiple-use federal land agency, the BLM has a significantly different structural and management approach than the NPS.
1. GATES, FEES, RESTRICTIONS
There is no entrance fee or entrance gates into the monument. However, you must secure a free permit to camp overnight.
When the national Monument was created, the concept was to push all support services to area communities. As a result, support infrastructure is community-based rather than site-based.
There are no new campgrounds within the national monument that didn’t exist before the designation. Dispersed camping is allowed and RVs are okay.
In general, there is increased visitation over the past 20 years along the heavily-traveled main routes, but it is still wide open in the backcountry.
There are 880,000 acres in the 1.9 million acre monument that are designated Wilderness Study Areas (WSA). This is 46 percent of the entire monument. The designation did not impact the restrictions on WSAs.
The number of special recreation permits has grown dramatically over time. There were 35 permits in 1995 and 115 have been issued in 2017. These special recreation permits are for outfitters, guides, and special events.
The monument has a 15-member monument advisory committee.
Communities in the national monument have been impacted by the designation, with both sides arguing whether it is positive or negative. Traditional jobs have declined and tourism sector jobs have increased.
Community populations from 1996 and 2014
Escalante went from 1,100 to 779, a 29% decrease
Kanab went from 3,878 to 4,468, a 15% increase
Cannonville went from 130 to 160, a 23% increase
Big Water went from 366 to 468, a 28% increase
Glendale went from 337 to 377, a 12% increase
Monticello went from 1,876 to 1,975, a 5% increase
Blanding went from 3,521 to 3,581, a 2% increase
Escalante is the community most impacted by the monument. Traditional community measures are devastated, with high school enrollment dropping 56% and a sawmill closing that once employed 65. At the same time, there is dynamic growth in tourism businesses.
There are 51 permanent full-time employees of the monument and eight seasonal employees. The Kanab BLM field office is managed separately from the monument.
5. VISITOR CENTERS
There are Grand Staircase NM visitor centers in Kanab, Escalante, Big Water, and Cannonville and a contact station in Glendale. Visitation to the visitor centers in 2016 totaled 189,551.
2016 Visitor Center Stops
Escalante : 76,179
Kanab : 44,479
Cannonville : 35,796
Big Water : 33,097
Monticello Welcome Center : 22,564
Blanding Visitor Center : 26,118
Bluff Fort : 46,232
While the continuation of traditional grazing is specifically mentioned in the monument proclamation, grazing issues are a source of contention between the monument and local residents.
The grazing plan for the area around the monument was developed in the 1980s, long before the 1996 monument designation. An overall management plan was created for the monument, but it did not change the grazing plan. The monument is currently in a public planning process to modify the livestock grazing management plan from the 1980s.
There are 79 active livestock grazing allotments within the monument. Overall permitted use within the monument is roughly the same level now as it has been since the early 1990s.
An AUM (Animal Unit Month) is the amount of forage needed to sustain a cow and calf, a horse, or five sheep or goats for a month. When the monument was created in 1996, there were 77,400 “permitted” AUMs within the monument boundaries. Soon afterward, the number dropped to 76,957.
According to the BLM, permitted AUMs are the highest number that could be used under ideal conditions.
According to monument officials, the difference between permitted and actual UAM’s is dependent primarily upon rangeland conditions. The actual use varies from year to year, depending upon the ability of the land to support livestock. This determination is often a source of conflict between rangeland managers and permit holders.
The number of actual UAM’s has ranged from 54,560 in 2000 to 15,980 in 2003. Actual AUM’s were between 40,000 and 50,000 in eleven of the previous 16 years. Average actual AUMs is 40,467 during that time.
Grazing in the adjacent Kanab BLM field office follows a similar pattern, ranging from a high of 12,597 in 2000 to a low of 5,250 in 2002. Overall, the actual AUM’s in the Kanab field office averages 9,841 per year. The Kanab field office has 18,241 active AUM’s. As a result, actual use is 53.9 percent of the “perfect-scenario”.
The Grand Canyon Trust purchased several grazing allotments in the 1990s and apparently intended to retire the allotments. However, subsequent legal challenges require the Trust to continue to graze on the allotments that they purchased.
Many of the permit holders complain about the difficulty of making rangeland improvements on their allotments. These improvements are particularly difficult in Wilderness Study Areas because of restrictions to motorized vehicles.
There are two designated fuelwood cutting areas within the monument, with approximately 19,200 acres near Kanab and an additional 4,800 acres near Cannonville. The management plan outlined key areas for fuelwood cutting. In addition, approximately 30,000 acres are under restoration effort with the goal of improving rangeland health.
There are reports of increased vandalism and graffiti within the monument, with names scratched into sandstone being the most common incident. In 2015, 1,234 square feet of defaced rock faces were restored.
In 2016, back country rangers responded to multiple incidents of vandalism and graffiti on cultural sites, as well as canyon walls.
The national monument reported 926,236 “visitor contacts” in 2016. Since there are no admission gates into the monument, determining actual visitation is often difficult.
Monument officials use six methods to count visitation, including foot and vehicle counters at key destinations, visitor center counts, fee envelope data, trailhead registers, and overnight permits in the back country database.
In 2016, there were record high visitor counts at Lower Calf Creek Falls (36,437), Devils Garden (27,802), Dry Fork Slot Canyons (27,647), Spencer Flat Road (15,275), Burr Trail (78,917), Grosvenor Arch (13,685), Paria Movie Set (19,099) and Toadstools Trailhead (18,765).
The most popular trailheads experienced at least 3,000 more hikers in 2016 than they did in 2015 and Dry Fork Slot Canyons received approximately 6,000 more hikers than the prior year.
Grand Staircase NM : 926,236
Natural Bridges NM : 101,843
Hovenweep NM : 42,862
Rainbow Bridge NM : 86,369
Glen Canyon NRA : 3,239,525
Canyonlands NP : 776,218
----Needles District : 160,496
Dead Horse Point SP : 403,737
Edge of the Cedars SP (paid) : 9,626
Goosenecks SP : 51,985
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service