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Redrock Ranger

Who says the West has been won?

by Marilyn Berlin Snell

Southwestern Utah is red country, in the land and on the map. In 2000, voters in Kane County’s striated desert terrain of Navajo sandstone, Chinle, and Kayenta formations voted for George W. Bush at six timesthe rate as for Al Gore. Affection for Bush’s states’-rights rhetoric and disgust with a national monument, Grand Staircase–Escalante, help explain the rock-ribbed stand. It was bad enough, say locals, that in 1996 President Bill Clinton effected a "landgrab" of a huge chunk of Kane County, establishing the 1.9-million-acre monument under Bureau of Land Management care. Worse, he did so without consulting them. They are still outraged at the snub.

Symbols of resentment are everywhere. Blue signs resembling those that detail BLM routes and restrictions in the monument, but saying "NO GSENM," are placed on lawns throughout the town of Kanab. The monument’s hydrologist has to look at one planted right outside her kitchen window on her neighbor’s property. It can’t be seen from the street, so she can’t help but take the message personally.

Local politicians have inflamed the antipathy, making misinformed links between the county’s sluggish economy, the monument, and environmental groups that support the protection of the area’s public lands. For example, the governing bodies of Kane County and Kanab have both passed resolutions condemning the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a strong monument advocate, for promoting principles of "deep environmentalism" and for the "curtailing of hundreds of primary jobs in and around Kane County." The resolution goes on to assert that SUWA (detractors pronounce the acronym "sue ya") "implements philosophies that are destructive to our way of life and culture and our right to a reasonably secure economic existence."

It is difficult to understand what jobs the resolution refers to. Net income from farming and ranching in Kane County, population 6,000, dropped from $1 million in 1970 to zero in 1995—a year before the monument’s establishment. Grazing permits on BLM lands were not affected by the monument’s designation, and few Kane County ranchers graze cattle on the monument’s allotments in any event. The cowboy life—central to this desert county’s cultural identity—is a far stronger myth than reality.

In terms of energy exploration on the monument, Andalex Resources, the monument’s largest mine-leaseholder, swapped its lease for land elsewhere. There is no evidence that the company had figured out—or would ever figure out—a way to develop its remote Kaiparowits Plateau coal reserves profitably.

Ill will flared again recently after a series of grand jury subpoenas were issued to the sheriff, a county commissioner, and the county road supervisor. The U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City wants to ask them a few questions about a secret meeting of county commissioners and the subsequent removal of BLM road signs from the monument. The dustup between these Kane County locals and the feds may seem harmless; it’s anything but. The sign removal is a shot across the bow in what could be a precedent-setting battle between a western county and the federal government over who controls rights-of-way on—and therefore, in substantial ways, management of—America’s public lands. The rallying cry is "No Closed Roads," with all-terrain vehicles as mechanical mascot and elected Kane County officials at the helm.

Russell Beesley, 54, was tending to government business on a super-heated day last August when he was caught off-guard by the rebellion. Beesley, a backcountry ranger for the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, was replacing signs that had been shot up or gone missing—a regular occurrence on these BLM lands. Afterward, he was going to rendezvous with a fellow ranger for a trek to a remote part of the monument called Grand Bench.

On a rarely traveled patch of road, Beesley spots a county sheriff patrol car. Deputy Tracy Glover stops and leans his head out the window. Glover is a neighbor and the proud owner of a Martin guitar; he’s always asking Beesley, who received a graduate degree in music composition from California’s tony Mills College and who teaches guitar in Kanab, for new chords to try. "What the hell you doing out here, Tracy?" Beesley asks. In his four years working the backcountry, Beesley had rarely seen anyone from the sheriff’s office. Glover tells him he’s pulling out BLM signs, but Beesley doesn’t pay attention—he thinks Glover is yanking his chain, just giving him a hard time because he works for what many in Kane County call "the enemy." They shoot the breeze for a while about Glover’s buzzing guitar strings and then drive off in opposite directions.

A while later, Beesley meets up with his colleague, a monument cop, and hears radio traffic on his repeater. It turns out that County Sheriff Lamont Smith, County Commissioner Mark Habbeshaw, and county road supervisor Lou Pratt are in the monument as well. They’ve gone up Last Chance—one of the ephemeral waterways inside the monument on which the county asserts its right-of-way—and gotten stuck in quicksand. They’re on the radio trying to get help. Beesley and his coworker offer assistance, but the sheriff tersely declines.

Beesley doesn’t understand what he’s stumbled into until the next day, when he sees 31 BLM road signs—31 gauntlets, in effect—thrown down in the corner of the monument office. Commissioner Habbeshaw had dropped them off upon his return to town, after he and his accomplices had spent an uncomfortable night in Last Chance.

According to the California office of BLM law enforcement, damaging or removing federal property on BLM land is a crime, but many Kanab locals don’t see it that way. "I support the sheriff and the others 100 percent," says Marilyn DeVooght, wearing a checked shirt, tight bluejeans, and a holstered gun as part of her uniform for Houston’s, a restaurant on Kanab’s main street. "I think it’s a crock. They did nothing wrong. Those are county roads and the BLM should not be allowed to put restrictions on them." Her pretty but reddening face stands out against a swept-up blond hairdo. "Oh, I get so mad about it!" she exclaims.

Among Kanab’s 3,500 residents, it’s inadvisable to disagree with sentiments like these, or admit you think those monument roads aren’t the county’s. It would be social suicide to say you support the monument and are glad it is now part of the National Landscape Conservation System, a designation that gives added protection to the first-ever national monument managed by the BLM.

Beesley either doesn’t understand the risks or doesn’t care: He is irrepressibly pro-monument. He knows he’s in the minority, but he’s used to the stigma. As a teenager in the 1960s-era hippie haven of Santa Cruz, California, he was an Eagle Scout and a Mormon. His father, a high school counselor, was a member of the ultraconservative John Birch Society. In the years since the 1967 move to Kanab with his parents and seven siblings, Beesley became a ponytailed musician, a practicing Buddhist, and a seasonal backcountry ranger for the BLM. "I get along with everyone," Beesley, a bespectacled regular guy with a hint of an off-season belly, says with grinning conviction.

Beesley never considered himself political. Prior to the sign controversy his most outspoken act had been stringing Tibetan prayer flags in his front yard. But local officials have gone too far for him. "They drove right by a Wilderness Study Area sign," says Beesley. (A 1978 BLM inventory deemed such areas to have special "wilderness character" but they need congressional approval before joining the National Wilderness Preservation System.) "They want to create as much controversy as they can." In response, Beesley now regularly writes letters to the editor, calls state representatives, speaks at commission meetings, and is working with a few other locals to start a nonprofit support group called Friends of the Monument.

"They treat these lands like it’s their private property. They don’t understand that you can go anywhere in the monument—you just can’t use your ATV all the time. You can’t just impact everything." Referring to his great-great grandfather, who had been with Mormon elder Brigham Young on his pioneering trek west, he adds, "I think about what Orson Pratt saw when he first looked upon the Salt Lake valley. I don’t have kids myself; I’m not speaking out for my descendants. These are our public lands, every single American citizen’s, and I think there are extremes where the monument bashers just shouldn’t go."

The sign-pulling didn’t sit well with Beesley—who called it "vandalism" in the local paper—or with Clinton-era BLM director Pat Shea, who had dealt with those opposed to the monument during his tenure at the BLM. Shea had been asked to respond to the secret commission vote, the sign-pulling, and a letter, sent a few weeks later to Utah’s BLM director, in which Kanab and Kane County officials defiantly defended the sign eradication and went on to demand that the director shrink the monument staff and demote monument manager Dave Hunsaker. "There are enormously talented people in the BLM," Shea told the Salt Lake Tribune. "For them to be drummed out of their position by the village idiot choir doesn’t make sense."

Beesley is thinking about the uproar as he strums his guitar one sleepless night in the brand-new all-terrain-vehicle staging area near Kanab. He’s been assigned to guard the tents and chairs set up for the next morning’s celebration of National Public Lands Day on September 20. The ATV jumping-off point was chosen to bring attention to the completion of a section of the Great Western Trail (a corridor that will eventually stretch 3,000 miles through western public lands), on which off-road vehicles, horses, hikers, and mountain bikers can travel. Beesley is about to lose his job at the monument, along with the other seven seasonal employees (five permanent employees will be reduced to nine-month stints), but that night in the desert he is happily unaware of that fact.

His other great-great grandfather, Ebenezer Beesley, was a well-known Mormon composer and hymnist in the West. In its tumultuous early days, Mormon followers in the Utah territory nearly went to war with the federal government when President James Buchanan ordered church leader Brigham Young to be replaced as governor by a non-Mormon more willing to take his lead from Washington. Ebenezer’s enduring hymn, "Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words to Each Other," was probably not aimed at the U.S. Army.

Now Ebenezer’s great-great grandson is sitting at a picnic table riffing on the "village idiot choir," which becomes the title of a song he writes that night. Beesley has crossed an ancestral line by siding with the despised federal government. "There’s this group of guys and they just want to fight. Sometimes I’m wishing they could just see the light," he croons to the coyotes and the star-pierced sky. The lyrics to "Village Idiot Choir" go on, and aren’t kind, but the sentiments are exemplary of the nasty new generation of polarized politics in the West.

"I’m thinking about the monument, which I love," says Beesley. "And then I start thinking about those guys in Kanab who hate the monument—who want to drive their ATVs and assert their right over every two-track and cow path. It makes me angry."

When I ask Commissioner Mark Habbeshaw about the controversy, he jokes that he hadn’t much cared for getting stuck in quicksand—but as to most everything else he’s all business. The 62-year-old retired Las Vegas cop is wiry, with short gray hair and tinted granny glasses. His smile is pretty much a no show, but I give him credit for speaking to me at all since the Sierra Club is about as popular in Kanab as pacifists are at Fort Benning. (Kanab mayor Kim Lawson sat with silent ferocity during my interview with Habbeshaw, saying at its conclusion only that they "shouldn’t have given the Sierra Club one minute of their time.")

Habbeshaw acknowledges there was a secret vote among the commissioners. "We subsequently removed the signs, 31 signs on 20 roads," he says, adding that the BLM "can’t just arbitrarily deny our property rights and assume that [the roads] are federal property." When I ask if what they did was legal, he replies, "We’re going to find out. We certainly think it was."

Lamont Smith, a popular sheriff and an off-road-vehicle enthusiast, with hard-muscled biceps and a military-style crew cut, is respectful but not friendly when I ask to speak with him. Shaking the hand I offer, he says he’s been advised by his lawyer not to talk to the press. Deputy Tracy Glover is also mum.

One measly and ill-understood sentence in the 1866 Mining Act has caused an awful lot of the tension: Revised Statute (RS) 2477 states that "the right-of-way for the construction of highways across public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted." These words are being used by Kane County to justify the sign pulling and the assertion of county rights-of-way over every road in the monument. There are many problems with this viewpoint, not least that the county and the BLM disagree on what constitutes a road. Beesley was not far off when he accused local pols of asserting rights-of-way over cow paths. If an Indian tribe used a bank of the Paria River as a travel corridor hundreds of years ago, for example, the county claims it as a preexisting road that should be open to ATVs; if Mormon pioneers dragged their wagons over fragile cryptobiotic crusts, which help soil retain moisture and nutrients and keep it from blowing away, it’s still a road by the county’s lights; if there’s a route through territory thought to be rich in paleontology—the monument is now widely acknowledged to be the most important dinosaur site in the United States, and much of the off-road damage occurs in these areas–too bad for the hadrosaurs.

A memorandum of understanding, signed last April by Interior secretary Gale Norton and then—Utah governor (now EPA director) Mike Leavitt, helps clarify RS 2477 not at all. What both environmentalists and county officials call a backroom deal encourages Utah counties to apply for ownership of old roadways on public lands, including those in the Grand Staircase—Escalante National Monument, but with the caveat that the roads must be "unquestionably" part of the state’s transportation system. This disclaimer may ward off some of the more egregious right-of-way assertions–but not without lengthy and expensive BLM review and, most likely, litigation.

Monument manager Dave Hunsaker has, bar none, the toughest job in Kane County. Right now he’s not overly popular with anyone. Local politicians, for example, have excoriated him for what they call his "preservation management philosophy." A 34-year veteran of the BLM, Hunsaker says diplomatically that his "people skills" have been tested by these politicians since he replaced Clinton-appointee Kate Cannon, but adds that there are folks on the other side "who say I’m an old-time BLMer and therefore

I’m just going to continue the way it was before these public lands became a monument. That’s absolutely not true." He continues, "We have a proclamation that says we have to protect this treasure, and manage it for its special scientific, historic, and cultural resources." That, he says, is what he intends to do.

The proclamation is a beautifully written document, but there’s precious little money to allow Hunsaker to follow it. The monument was established with a $6.4 million annual operating budget, but Congress and the Department of Interior now have discretion as to how much reaches his office. For fiscal year 2004, a $1 million budget shortfall forced Hunsaker to lay off all temporary and seasonal employees, including Beesley. For nearly 3,000 square miles of desert, most of it hard to reach, there are now only four full-time backcountry rangers–half of what there used to be during the busy season.

Later, as we’re on a driving tour of the monument, Beesley tells me about one of his last encounters as a backcountry ranger. But first he vents. "Knuckleheads!"–and sometimes worse–he yells as he slams on the brakes. This happens frequently over miles of bumpy dirt road.

Beesley put in most of the signs his neighbors love to hate and knows where they’re supposed to be. Each time he sees one missing, he gets out of the Jeep and walks past ATV tracks that go off-road into the desert, hunts down the signs (most have been torn out and thrown down ravines or in nearby rabbit brush), and pounds them back in with a rock. "I may have lost my job but there’s still work to do. I can’t help it," he says as he throws his rock-tool with vehemence. I ask him how he squares his Buddhism with his aggressive opposition to what’s going on. He raises his eyebrows. "Is it aggressive?" he asks innocently. "I don’t want to fight with anyone. But I have a view that I know others share. That view has been drowned out and I think it’s time our side is heard."

I’m relieved when we finally get to a signed stretch of road. "Last summer I’d hiked to Pleasant Grove on 50 Mile Mountain," Beesley begins. "I’m on my way back down, out to the end of Hole in the Rock, and I see these kids, eight or nine of them, and three men bringing up the rear. It’s hot. They tell me they hiked up from Lake Powell and hadn’t brought any water. One kid looks near heat exhaustion. I always carry water so I give them what they need. Then I find out one of these guys is a Utah state senator!"

Beesley continues, "When I’m losing my job I call him. I tell him what’s going on with the budget. He promises to look into it and get back to me." Beesley still hasn’t heard a word.


Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra’s writer/editor.

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