One local controversy sure to keep the flame of contention burning for months if not years to come is whether Canyonlands National Park should be expanded. Arguments from both sides of the aisle keep me undecided on the issue. But no matter, my vote probably won’t be counted in this debate. And therein lies the burn of disagreement: on a community level there’s no vote and there’s little debate.
The newly seated Grand County Council has been quick to tell Washington they are opposed to any expansion. Within minutes of being sworn in, new council members raised their voices in opposition to the proposal, which I found refreshing not because I necessarily agreed with them, but because the council members were actually using their voices. Boards too often are filled with people who say and do little, simply rubber-stamping administrative housework without hashing matters out. I like to hear a little discussion from elected leaders because it tells me they are actually thinking about their jobs.
But at least one letter to the editor took umbrage with the council’s action, allowing that the shave-tail council members hadn’t taken the temperature of their constituents regarding park expansion. Oppositely, there was talk by others of boycotting businesses that supported the expansion. There was sheer divisiveness in the letters columns.
Perhaps that burn of disagreement could be tempered if we as a community could create opportunities for residents to speak out on these big-ticket matters. A decision of this gravity needs to be made in the light of day, and people who care should have a chance to speak. But this hasn’t been the case when it’s come to park and monument issues in Utah.
Take, for example, the establishment of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. That plan was hatched in a vacuum by a president who had taken little notice of Utah while in office. The action was an eleventh-hour surprise, and lacked modern American dialogue. Was the monument a bad idea? I don’t think so. But I do care that the public had no say in the decision and that the monument was intended to be a bit of an ambush.
Canyonlands National Park was established when I was a baby, so of course I don’t have any firsthand recollection of the discussions surrounding its birth. But I was taught that when the idea of the park was first pitched to local leaders in southeastern Utah, it was advertised as being something akin to the Grand Canyon in terms of having visitor services. Early drawings spoke of lodging and eateries, which Grand and San Juan county commissioners saw as a method to support their local economies as the massive lands were being withdrawn from other uses such as mining and grazing. But when Canyonlands was actually established, federal decision-makers removed those proposed commercial incentives, setting aside massive tracts of land from development or use in a manner that would generate very little traditional revenue.
Again, was that a bad idea? Probably not. Maybe it’s best that Canyonlands is remote and wild and difficult to visit. What I don’t like about its establishment is that locals were sort of duped into a plan that Washington never intended to follow.
Behind-the-scenes strategies are a key way of getting things accomplished, but I’d much rather see the public be involved. Former Canyonlands Superintendent Walt Dabney, during his tenure in Moab in the 1990s, was involved in an effort to expand Canyonlands by way of back-room talks. Maps were drawn, key people were paraded across Needles Overlook, and a special kind of Utah beer called “Expansion Ale” was brewed and labeled to tout the accomplishment. But the deal went up in smoke when the plan was more fully unveiled, killed by the burn of disagreement.
Perhaps if a genuine community discussion had occurred at the beginning of Dabney’s effort, a compromise agreement could have been devised so that a dozen years later the matter wouldn’t need revisiting.
The best way to accomplish things is with thorough discussion, giving those members of the public that have something to say a chance to do so. It makes for a healthier community. Yes, there will still be disagreement, but perhaps the process will leave our town feeling a little less divided.