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A strange thing happened in Escalante, Utah, during the government shutdown last fall. The town, a remote community of fewer than 800 souls perched on a high desert plain around a trickle of water called the Escalante River, is surrounded on all sides by the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, two million federally protected acres of rugged, visually breathtaking sandstone wilderness larger than the state of Delaware. Because the monument is so vast, pierced by several highways and county roads, it was virtually uncloseable during the shutdown. So when thousands of tourists were turned away from the more famous national parks in the region—Zion, Arches, Grand Canyon—they made their way to Escalante to salvage their vacations. And Escalante had its best October on record, its small business owners making out like mule dealers in a gold rush. “Hotels were chock-a-block with tourists,” says Brent Cottam, a gas station and Subway owner in town.

Escalante’s boomlet during the shutdown was only the latest episode in a longer tale of the town’s unexpected economic growth due to decisions in far-off Washington, D.C. And its story is itself part of a much larger transformation that has been creeping across the American West for decades, as a new recreation economy centered around tourism edges out an older extractive economy that relied on mining, timber, drilling, and ranching. It’s a shift not just in the type of jobs available, but in the political landscape of the entire region.

In Escalante’s case, the story starts in September 1996, when President Bill Clinton was faced with a dilemma. It was high campaign season, and for most of his first term he and environmentalists had been fighting a rearguard action to prevent the development of the massive coal deposits on the Kaiparowitz Plateau, a high bench in southern Utah notable for its Cretaceous-era fossils. Fed up with the squabbling and eager to lock up the environmentalist vote, Clinton decided to end the debate in one bold stroke: using the authority vested in the executive branch under the Antiquities Act, he declared the Kaiparowitz, as well as a huge swath of the surrounding region, a national monument. Unlike a national park, some grazing and timber sales would still be allowed, but the coal would be off-limits forever.

Clinton’s decision was bitterly opposed by most of the citizens of Escalante, who were eager for the extra jobs and wage growth that many hoped would come with a giant new coal-mining operation. And in Washington, Republicans reacted to what they saw not only as a classically liberal decision to sacrifice jobs on the altar of the environment but also as an underhanded abuse of executive power. They complained that the White House had prepared the monument plans in secret. Even the Utah congressional delegation wasn’t notified until twenty-four hours beforehand. To add insult to injury, Clinton held the dedication ceremony on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which is in Arizona and dozens of miles from any part of the new monument. Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, said it was “something that I think would happen in the former Soviet Union or some Third World dictatorship.” Brent Griffin, who owns a grocery store in Escalante, still remembers the move today. “The way they did it was awful sneaky,” he says.


But much to the surprise of many, it wasn’t long before the recreational industry in Escalante began to take off. Grant Johnson, who ran an outfitting business in the area from 1991 to 2012, says that after the land was designated there was a dramatic and sustained increase in bookings. Before the monument “it was hard to fill trips,” he said. “But after, we had waiting lists.”

Overall, things have worked out fairly well around the monument. Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit consulting firm, estimates that in surrounding communities, from the designation in 1996 to 2008, “population increased by 8.3 percent, jobs by 37.6 percent, real personal income by 40.3 percent, and real per capita income by 29.6 percent.”

This is at odds with the axis of debate back in 1996, which turned on the virtue of environmental preservation versus the economic benefits of coal development. The Kaiparowitz contains an estimated sixty-two billion tons of coal, up to 20 percent of which might have been economically recovered. Before the national monument designation, a Dutch firm called Andalex had been drawing up plans for a large mine on these deposits, while environmentalists argued that jobs thus obtained were not worth despoiling beautiful countryside and the smog created by burned coal.

It is true that there are many jobs to be had in the extractive industry. According to the oil and gas industry’s largest trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, the industry supported 2.6 million direct jobs and $203.6 billion in labor income in 2011, while according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the coal industry supports about 90,000 jobs. And it should be noted that these jobs are of a kind that is vanishingly rare these days: they require a high school education or less, and though they are often dangerous, they pay well enough to support a family.

But the economic benefits of an extraction economy are not as one-sided as the extractive industries and their allies would have you believe. There is a lot of money in the recreation economy as well—and it’s much more sustainable over a long period of time. While the extractive industries tend to follow a boom-and-bust cycle, the recreation industry is more consistently reliable. Its booms aren’t as dramatic, but neither are its busts.

A study commissioned by the Outdoor Industry Association estimated that the recreation economy drives $646 billion in consumer spending and creates 6.1 million jobs directly. A 2011 National Park Service study concluded that spending by park visitors supported 251,600 jobs, $30.1 billion in sales, $9.34 billion in labor income, and $16.5 billion in value added. From another angle, a Headwaters study found that western non-metro counties have a per capita income that is $436 greater for every 10,000 acres of protected public lands within their boundaries.

While there’s always reason to be skeptical of self-justifying research, there are other factors that indicate that the recreation economy is doing well. In 2012, the National Parks saw almost 283 million visitors, and the National Forests saw about 160 million. There are no system-wide visitor statistics for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land—indeed, it is probably not possible to rigorously survey their nearly 250 million acres—but the number of annual visitors is undoubtedly quite large as well. And that number of visitors is bound to bring in a fair amount of cash.

The strengths and pitfalls of each model of rural development are well illustrated by two other small Utah towns: Vernal and Moab.

Vernal, a town of about 9,000 in Uintah County, in the northeast corner of the state, has gone all-in on extractive industry, sinking oil wells by the score, and the benefits are evident in job growth and quick prosperity. Vernal has the stretched, just-unwrapped feel of new wealth. Traveling there recently, I saw streets congested with brand-new trucks, gas stations recently renovated to service large industrial equipment, and a brand-new vocational school, the Uintah Basin Applied Technology College. In this grim economy, the benefits of decent, working-class jobs should not be understated.

But the situation is not without downsides. The drillers have bid the price of unskilled labor so high that other businesses in Vernal are struggling to afford help, thereby introducing a structural distortion that will hurt the area when the oil runs out (as it must). And all the oil activity has crimped what was once a small but vibrant recreation economy. On the BLM land near Vernal, there has been “a tremendous decline in recreation activity,” says Bill Stevens, a recreation planner for the agency in Utah.

Worse, many of the drillers have no intention of staying in town. Like many workers in the extractive industry, they follow the oil from place to place. They don’t buy homes, invest in real estate, or become permanent members of a community. As evidence of the transience of the population, many locals told me that the recently built Holiday Inn in town was booked solid by Halliburton for an entire year before the construction was even complete. Vernal has already suffered two crushing oil busts, the first in the early 1980s and the second in the 2000s. Another one is coming at some point.

Moab, on the opposite side of the economic spectrum, lies a few hours south of Vernal in neighboring Grand County. It used to be a mining town, but when the local uranium industry slowly collapsed in the 1970s and ’80s the town suffered a terrible bust. For the past several decades, local agencies, businesses, and individuals have slowly restructured their economy around attracting visitors instead.

Building a reputation as a tourist hub and increasing a town’s service base is a complex, self-reinforcing process that takes years. To advertise, Moab levied a tax on hotel beds and returned half of the money to a local agency, the Moab Area Travel Council, which advertises all over the world. Their success can be measured by the visitation at nearby Arches National Park, which climbed from 236,000 in 1975 to over a million in 2012—and that’s only one of Moab’s many attractions.

Meanwhile, they deepened their service portfolio. More visitors and a longer busy season allowed the community to support a greater number and diversity of hotels and restaurants, which itself increases the attractiveness of the destination. Where there used to be a few burger joints there is now sushi and Thai food, and most restaurants stay open all year long. Where there were once a couple of bargain motels there are now luxury resorts, B&Bs, and even luxury camping (or “glamping”—glamour camping—in which camping is combined with high-end amenities like hot tubs), for hundreds of dollars per night.

Finally, Moab cultivated as many different types of recreation as possible. Aside from the classics—hiking and camping—the community now offers river rafting, rock-climbing, four-wheeling, and skydiving. Moab locals, credited for developing mountain biking back in the 1980s, have helped make the town a world-famous mecca for the now widely popular sport. Part of the result of Moab’s development is that it now caters not only to the wealthy but also to visitors in every other socioeconomic category. As a Headwaters report on Grand County put it, “One of the unusual aspects of Grand County is the wide range of recreational opportunities and activities it supports. In effect, the county’s economic diversity lies within its amenity and recreation economy.” The end result of this long process is that Moab can now boast a robust service-based economy. Jobs that require complex skills, like river rafting, pay better than baseline service jobs, like housekeeping or cashiering, and the same holds true for luxury hotels and resorts.

The upshot of all this is that Vernal is currently somewhat richer than Moab, with a per capita income about 15 percent greater. But while the extractive economy is undeniably good for a fast, easy buck, it is vulnerable to busts that can come just as quickly. The recreation economy may be less lucrative initially and much harder to establish, but it is far more stable in the long run.

This raises the question of just where this might lead in the long term. Already the Mountain West is undergoing a dramatic demographic, cultural, and political shift (ably documented in a 2012 book edited by Ruy Teixeira, America’s New Swing Region). What used to be solidly Republican territory—not one state voted Democratic in a presidential election between 1968 and 1988—now contains several of America’s few remaining swing states, and will likely contain more as the years pass. New Mexico and Colorado, once solidly red states, both went to Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. And given the growth of the Latino population, Arizona is likely to be contested soon, too.

This evolution is not completely driven by the recreation economy, of course. Bigger factors at play include the rapid growth of cities and minority populations, rising liberalism among the young, and large-scale in-migration of educated whites—though much of that migration is not unrelated to the Mountain West’s magnificent recreational opportunities. Noel Poe, who worked for the National Park Service for forty years, moved to Escalante in 2007. “I wanted to retire in redrock country,” he said. Steve Roberts, who owns Escalante Outfitters, moved for the monument, too. But the interesting point is that recreation-based communities can change the voting behavior of rural counties, which are typically the strongest of the Republican fortresses. The political consequences could be enormous. Just consider the fact that Mitt Romney won all of Utah by 48 points, but in Grand County, he barely broke 50 percent.

Old meets new: Crockett Dumas rides in front of Escalante Excursions, an outdoor outfitter, in the Pioneer Day Parade.

Eroding the last remaining Republican strongholds would be quite a development, but it could also change the ideological valence of protected lands. If rural communities across the Mountain West start leaning Democratic, Republicans might be forced to reconfigure their “drill, baby, drill” approach to all environmental policy.

These changes have only just started to percolate—Garfield and Kane Counties, the home of Grand Staircase, are still heavily Republican. But for starters, folks in Escalante have largely come to terms with the monument, especially given that, thanks to Clinton, the town has few other options. These days they’re looking for ways to take advantage of Grand Staircase even if they aren’t terribly happy with how it came to be. In 2011, Escalante mayor Jerry Taylor testified before Congress in support of a bill that would have required that any new monuments get congressional approval first, but in an interview with me he spoke mostly about trying to take advantage of the place. “We have this asset now, and we need to capitalize on it,” he said. “I call it America’s Outback.”

But taking advantage of a latent recreation economy takes work. Creating museums or launching advertising campaigns can be a heavy lift for a town of fewer than 800 people. Environmentalist organizations, which have spent a lot of money buying and retiring grazing leases in the monument, might consider helping these small communities develop their recreation potential and, in the process, create new stakeholders with an interest in protected lands.

Ultimately, it is much easier to picture a western economy centered largely around tourism than around coal, oil, and gas. The Mountain West has a nearly inexhaustible supply of coal, but America’s coal industry is being hammered by cheap natural gas, Environmental Protection Agency rules banning new coal-fired plants, and the prospect of additional EPA rules that will phase out existing plants. The formation of a national-level climate policy may be hard to imagine, but it is certainly not impossible, and every major climate-related disaster increases the likelihood that such a policy will be enacted. Carbon mining of any kind is likely doomed over the long term.

The potential for a recreation-based economy, on the other hand, is as vast as the West itself. Americans have long loved their national parks. But because we aren’t creating many new ones, and we are creating more Americans, the crowds at the most famous parks, like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, get bigger every year. And as developing countries in Asia and Latin America grow richer, their expanding middle classes will increasingly have the means to satisfy the abiding human desire to travel and see great natural beauty—and nowhere is more beautiful than the American West. In the future, there will be more people eager not only to visit the West for its natural beauty but to live there as well, if the swelling populations of places like Denver, Boise, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City are any guide.

It’s highly likely that western towns in close proximity to our national parks, and especially off-the-beaten-path places like Escalante, will increasingly “get discovered” and experience significant growth. Presuming, that is, we preserve the pristine air and stunning landscapes that draw us to these places to begin with.

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Ryan Cooper

Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanlcooper. Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Nation.