Now that the mines have closed, the small towns of Emery County, Utah, are dreaming up an ambitious plan: A veritable outdoor playground with a new monument and more than half a million acres of designated wilderness. Can this scheme convince other towns to transition from extraction to recreation?
When Steven Jeffery helped pioneer climbing at Joe’s Valley Boulders in the 1990s, the Salt Lake City teen worried that the locals driving to work the coal mines might take potshots at him as he clung lizard-like to the rocks. The canyon where he climbs is about a three-hour drive south of the city, but like many places in rural Utah, that three hours can put you in foreign land. When trucks passed Jeffrey, he’d often hide. But not anymore.
Set in a trio of steep-headed box canyons in Emery County, Utah, Joe’s Valley Boulders is becoming one of the world’s preeminent destinations for climbers. Hundreds of massive sandstone rocks lie strewn across the piñon- and juniper-stippled canyon slopes, offering thousands of problems of all grades, with dozens more added each year. An estimated 15,000 climbers now flock to Joe’s from around the world annually, clustering in groups to spot and encourage each other and camping roadside next to bonfires.
This influx has come as a curious surprise to the locals, who marvel (and have certainly never shot at) the rangy climbers marching among the limestone boulders with massive square crash pads on their backs. Fewer residents of this rural desert county of 10,077 drive by these days, though, because the pair of mines dug into the same canyons are now closed.
As in coal country nationwide, the region is feeling the pinch of a declining industry. Cheaper natural gas is the new fuel of choice, and five of Emery County’s eight coal mines have closed in the past decade—the latest in 2015, taking 182 union jobs with it. The clock is also ticking for the two coal-fired plants—now 40 and 44 years old—that are the county’s largest employer. Population has declined 7 percent since 2010. All of this has led some in the community to look to outdoor recreation as a way to bolster the economy. Joe’s Valley is a start, but mountain biking remains largely untapped (especially for bike-mad Utah), and Emery’s real underutilized resource is the San Rafael Swell, a million-acre chunk of redrock desert every bit as spectacular as Utah’s five national parks.
In a move surprisingly divergent from the Utah communities fighting to roll back Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments, Emery County officials are lobbying the federal government to increase protection on their local public lands. The Emery County Public Land Management Act, introduced in Congress this month, would create a massive National Conservation Area out of the San Rafael Swell and designate some 577,986 acres as wilderness, a statewide increase of about 50 percent—significant in a state long at odds with the designation. Not everyone is happy about it. Some locals don’t want their community overrun by jeepers, cyclists, and selfie-stick-wielding tourists. Others resent any restrictions on local lands. But Emery’s nascent experiment may yield an alternative formula for regions stricken by collapsing extractive industries: The county wants to revitalize its community by increasing public lands protections, embracing the adventurers who recreate on them.
Jeffery is helping with that effort. These days, he’s the lead route setter at Salt Lake City’s Momentum Indoor Climbing Gyms. He also helps organize a burgeoning annual festival in the cluster of small towns near Joe’s Valley that brings climbers together with the still somewhat suspicious locals. Highlights include a beef jerky–making workshop at a butchery and a rodeo where climbers mingle with ranching families and take a shot at bull riding, chicken chase (you catch it, you keep it), and cash cow, where participants try to pull strips of tape redeemable for prizes from the fur of a loose bull. “We want locals to see that we aren’t all sketchy dirtbags,” Jeffery says.
According to Jeffery, the best gateway between Emery County and the climbers is the coffee shop that a local Mormon couple opened last year in their single-level home in Orangeville, Utah (population 1,500), about ten miles from the mouth of the canyon. Doug and Camie Stilson saw an opportunity to offer climbers free Wi-Fi and good coffee, two things largely unavailable in rural Emery County. At first, Jeffery says he was skeptical. But a year later, Camie makes a solid Americano and there is a map on the wall bristling with pushpins—a memento from each person from around the world who has visited Doug’s childhood home in Utah.
Orangeville is set between the cinnamon-colored cliffs of the Wasatch Plateau and a towering trio of coal-fired power plant smokestacks. The town is a grid of modest ranch-style homes, the bustling Food Ranch grocery, and a tavern with a “for sale” sign out front. It is a sunny winter day when I visit, along with Emery County’s economic development director, Jordan Leonard. On Main Street, we head to the Cup of Joe’s entrance, which doubles as the Stilson family’s front door. The family has remodeled the living room with new paint, Pergo flooring, and Ikea furniture, and they’ve installed a service window into the kitchen, where a restaurant-grade espresso machine rests on a counter. Sitting somewhat formally on the edge of the couch, Camie Stilson explains that she was looking for work she could do from home so she could also take care of her son with special needs. “We hardly used this room anyhow,” she says.
As a Mormon, Camie never drank coffee before she opened the business. “I learned how to make lattes on YouTube,” she says. The locals mostly order smoothies or steamers with flavored shots or chocolate. The shop opened in March 2017, and the Stilsons say they were profitable before the end of the year.
“Just a few months after we opened,” Camie says, “an Austrian couple came in. I called my husband: ‘I can’t believe there are people from Austria sitting in our living room drinking coffee.’”
Doug Stilson works for Emery Telecom, but Camie’s first husband was a coal miner, as was her father until he was injured in a mining accident, a common occurrence in Emery County. More than 120 people have died in mining accidents dating back to the late 1800s, including 27 in the 1984 Wilberg Mine fire and nine in the 2007 Crandal Canyon cave-in. In this tight-knit region, everyone knows someone who has been killed in the mines.
Three young women walk into the café, all dressed in fleece and beanies. They’re climbers, and they take a seat by the window.
“You’re still in town!” says Leonard, who had met them here earlier in the week.
“Tomorrow is our last day, but we are so sad to leave,” says Rydell Stottlemyer, who, along with her friends Alex Lichter and Kristine Bell, is a student at the University of Northern Colorado. “We love it here.”
While Stilson steams their drinks in the kitchen, Leonard does a little research on climbing, asking if you get naming rights when you’re the first to successfully climb a boulder and how many hours a day they usually climb. They joke about the crash pads climbers carry around. “I thought you guys climbed with them on,” Leonard says, laughing.
“I’ve told people it’s a moose saddle before,” Lichter says. She asks what Orangeville residents think of the climbers.
There are still some in town who are wary of outsiders, Leonard says, but he’s not one of them. “I think it’s a good thing. It opens our minds to meet new people.”
Leonard and I finish our drinks and say goodbye. As we drive up the street, he says, “When respected people in the community like the Stilsons open a business like this supporting an industry that some people think is sketchy, it helps.”
Next we head to the Food Ranch, one of the first businesses in town to truly recognize the economic potential of climbers. The grocery store is 40 years old, but only recently has it gained a somewhat international reputation among the Joe’s Valley coterie for stocking energy bars, microbrews, and kombucha alongside its famous Butterfinger-topped glazed donuts. Food Ranch also rents crash pads, sells climbing chalk, and lets climbers hang out, use Wi-Fi, and even shower in an upstairs lounge.
I meet manager Lisa Scovill near the entrance of the stucco-fronted building adorned with red wagon wheels. “I love climbers,” she says. Scovill is thin and fast-talking and is wearing a Guns N’ Roses sweatshirt underneath her apron. She estimates that during the spring and fall climbing season, 150 or more climbers a day shop at Food Ranch, spending thousands of dollars. “People complain about the climbers because they aren’t from here. But I get it, I’m an outsider too,” says Scovill, who moved to Emery County in the 1980s from West Virginia after her ex-husband found work with the mines. “Hell, I’ve had some of them stay at my house,” she says, referring to the time she loaned her guest room to a French couple.
“People say they are trashing our mountain, but I say, ‘Have you seen the huge trash bags full of Busch beer cans they’re constantly hauling down from there? You know how many cases of Busch I’ve ever sold to climbers? Zero. They are cleaning up after you.’”
In July 2017, to help Emery County residents understand the economic power of climbers, Leonard invited Steven Jeffery to address the monthly chamber of commerce meeting, held at the Museum of San Rafael, five minutes from Orangeville in neighboring Castle Dale (population: 1,500).
Jeffery related demographics about climbers, like how they tend to be well-educated and well-paid, or how they’ve managed to turn around economies, like in the faltering coal-mining towns around Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. But what seemed to really sink in was when he put a picture of a Sprinter van in his PowerPoint presentation. “You have all seen these, right?” Jeffrey asked. “They all laughed, because of course they had. Then I said, ‘These things are worth anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000.’ That got their attention.”
To understand the larger plan at play in Emery, look at a map of Utah. Scattered across its southern half are green splotches with celebrated names like Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Arches, and Canyonlands, all waypoints on the Great American road trip. Midway through that route lies Emery County, an empty white space on the map. To steer people off the highway and into businesses, they’ve drafted the Emery County Public Land Management Act to ink that space with federally recognized attractions.
The bill was introduced by Utah Representative John Curtis and Senator Orrin Hatch, who started talking with residents and stakeholders about the bill two decades ago. Hatch was a big proponent of downsizing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, but his office is really proud of this one. It would set aside 2,543 acres for the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry National Monument; 336,467 acres for the San Rafael Swell Western Heritage and Historic Mining National Conservation Area (NCA); and 577,986 acres of wilderness. It would also give Wild and Scenic River designation to 54 miles of the Green River. It is truly a massive land deal. And when asked why Hatch supported it, a spokesperson for his office, Matt Whitlock, called it an “ideal balance between access and protection.”
The heart of the proposal is the San Rafael Swell, a 75-by-40-mile geologic upheaval eroded over eons into a spectacular assembly of deep canyons, towering mesas, and cockscomb ridges. Its best-known location is Goblin Valley State Park, on the southeast flank, a 3,654-acre array of surreal redrock hoodoos, but other draws include the San Rafael River’s precipitous Little Grand Canyon, a handful of significant ancient rock-art panels, and dozens of enticing and sometimes technical canyoneering routes. (In one incident last year, search and rescue freed a woman stuck between narrow walls with the help of a gallon of dish soap.) The Swell, as it is known, has also long been popular with motorized users. Rugged rock-crawling trails like Behind the Reef and Devil’s Racetrack draw ATVers from across the country.
In Utah, opening trails to ATVs is also an ideological battle, a smaller war to beat back federal government overreach. Fifteen years ago, environmental groups won the closure of 468 miles of road and trail in the Swell, a ruling that’s been continually challenged by ATV enthusiasts in round after round of court hearings. In the past, even Emery has mostly shown deference to motorized users, but that may be shifting.
“The tourism studies we’re seeing say you need to attract nonmotorized users,” says Kent Wilson, an Emery County commissioner. “Hikers and bikers tend to like to go out to eat and stay in hotels. Motorized users bring groceries from home, and then set up base camp with their trailered four-wheelers and never come to town.”
To understand the bill a bit better, I meet with Ray Petersen, Emery County’s public lands administrator, in his office in Castle Dale. Petersen is a former horsepacking and river-running outfitter, and he sports both the mustache and the patient, deliberate manner of his previous career. In this new role, he has the unique position as the liaison between Emery County and the federal land agencies. The map of the county on his wall is a wash of brown BLM lands, with a brushstroke of green national forest in the northwest corner—Emery county is 92 percent federally managed. Private lands make up a patchy white stripe in northwest corner, where the majority of residents live in small towns like Castle Dale, Huntington, or Orangeville.
With so much of the county in federal hands, Petersen says, “we feel we have no choice but to work out compromises.”
Most significant on the map are the shaded yellow areas—eight large Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) accounting for nearly 500,000 acres. Most Utah counties have been in a standoff for decades with the conservation community over WSAs, which are largely administered like wilderness with prohibitions on drilling, mining, and motorized use. That’s obviously a tough sell in Emery County. Groups like the Sierra Club and the powerful Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), on the other hand, want the state’s 900,000 WSA acres converted to full-fledged wilderness because it offers more stringent protections against mineral extraction and motorized use. And in the current political climate, Wilderness Study Areas are for the first time being threatened with legislation to strip their protections.
In exchange for locking up so much land, what do the people of Emery County expect in return? A 2017 study by Montana-based research institute Headwaters Economics found that local economies surrounding 17 national monuments all expanded after designation. In the communities surrounding Grand Staircase-Escalante, between 2001 and 2015, population grew by 13 percent, per capita income by 17 percent, and personal income by 32 percent. These gateway communities to monuments and national parks realize the benefits not only through visitor expenditure but also through an influx of new workers, businesses, and retirees, all attracted by a higher quality of life.
Most important to Emery County residents is that they’d get certainty on how 92 percent of their county is managed. Unlike when Clinton created Grand-Staircase by presidential proclamation, the community would have more say in how the NCA and the wilderness within Emery is managed. The county would get seats on a management council alongside federal land managers. The bill would also lock in routes for motorized users, a controversial move that would roll back efforts made by environmentalists. “We don’t think litigation is any way to manage public lands,” Petersen says. “We really believe we have a good product here in light of the controversy that’s going on with our neighbors near Grand Staircase and Bears Ears.”
Not everyone is on board with Emery County’s recreation awakening. “It’s hard to find a camp spot on lots of fall and spring weekends anymore,” says Jeff Guymon, a rancher as well as Emery County’s head of IT. “Then, when you do, it’s sometimes trashed. Last weekend, we found human waste all over the place, even some syringes. Tourism does bring in some riffraff.”
County commissioner Lynn Sitterud agrees that many of his older constituents don’t want to trade their way of life and solitude for tourism. But if it’s coming regardless, he’d rather see it concentrated to the county’s east side. “It’s already an overflow for Moab, which is just too crowded,” he says.
In its success, Moab has become a symbol to some Utahns of the resortification tourism can bring. The national park gateway town has bumper-to-bumper traffic half the year and a significant affordable housing problem. In 2016, the city placed a short moratorium on new construction because the wastewater treatment plant was over capacity. “Moab is a mess even to just drive through,” Sitterud says, “much less live in.”
Another concern, Guymon says, is that there could be big financial costs to the community, from search and rescue expenses to road maintenance, which is a real issue in an enormous county with a tiny taxpaying population.
Pro-wilderness hardliners like the Sierra Club and SUWA have also come out swinging in response to the new land bill. “This is big step backwards for wilderness,” says Scott Groene, executive director of SUWA. He points to the reopened motorized routes and their linkages that would be “cherry stemmed” into the newly designated wilderness, a prospect he says would defeat the purpose of motorized exclusions.
Also problematic, according to Groene, are the so-called slippery slope provisions, like allowing ranchers to use ATVs to tend their grazing allotments, which could set a dangerous precedent for wilderness management nationwide. He’d prefer to see new trails and campgrounds built closer to development, rather than in the pristine Swell canyons, as is the plan at the moment. “Developed recreation is already causing damage in the backcountry,” Groene says, “and this would make it worse.”
That’s not to say that everyone in the conservation community is against the bill. The Outdoor Alliance, American Whitewater, and the Pew Charitable Trust all support the idea. And with Senator Hatch retiring this year, he may be particularly motivated to make the bill work.
At least one person in Emery County casts an envious eye on Moab. The area’s biggest cycling booster is Lamar Guymon, who happens to be Jeff’s uncle. The elder Guymon, 71, served as Emery County’s sheriff for 40 years and last November was elected mayor of Huntington, a town of 2,000 people about 15 minutes up the road from Orangeville. I meet him at the town hall before we set out to explore some nearby singletrack.
Stocky and slow-moving, Guymon loads my bike onto the hitch rack of his Nissan SUV. As we drive east out of Huntington into the Swell, he tells me he’s been riding bikes nearly every day since 1976. At 22, he went into law enforcement. “I didn’t want to work in the mines or be a farmer like my dad.” Guymon’s a talkative guy, and the social interaction and daily variety of policing suited him. But it took his weight ballooning to 285 pounds and a diabetes diagnosis for him to embrace fitness. Guymon began running marathons, but when he broke his foot (playing football against the fire department) and could no longer run, he started pedaling bikes. “I’ve never found anything that relieves stress better than riding,” he says.
Guymon points out an unused two-block parcel of city land on the edge of town. As mayor, he plans to build a bike park with jumps and interconnected trail loops there. For funding, he has a grant from the state, plus a backhoe operator willing to donate his time.
Mountain biking has a reputation for revitalizing the economies of extraction-based communities around the country. In the former iron-mining town of Crosby, Minnesota, a 25-mile trail network built in 2011 has been credited with creating 15 new businesses and pumping $2 million into the economy every year. Oakridge, Oregon, a struggling logging town, has seen a similar boost from mountain bikers. But the best analogue for Emery County might be Fruita, Colorado. A growing network of 139 miles of singletrack in that ranching community contributes an estimated $14.5 million annually to local shops, eateries, and hotels around the valley, largely from Denver-area residents looking for a closer alternative to Moab. As in Emery County, Fruita is surrounded by thousands of acres of BLM-administered desert with the sort of loose soil and rolling terrain perfect for building zippy mountain bike trails. Like Fruita, Emery County also lies between increasingly crowded Moab and a major metropolitan area full of mountain bikers. With a good trail network, Emery County could be Salt Lake City’s version of Fruita. Already, its tourism marketing slogan is “San Rafael Country: Closer than you think.”
The straight gravel road rises gradually, and after 20 minutes, Guymon and I arrive at the Little Grand Canyon Overlook, where the San Rafael River twists through a ledgy sandstone canyon 2,000 feet below. Winding for 15 miles along the rim is the Goodwater Rim Trail, Guymon’s favorite. After all, he almost singlehandedly built it.
“I love this country, but it sure has tried to kill me,” he says. Guymon points to one of several boulders placed near the rim to keep cars from driving over the edge. “That one rolled onto my leg in 2011, and I ended up in the hospital for a month,” he says. Before that, in May 2006, riding Goodwater with a shovel strapped to his bike, Guymon fell over the canyon rim, landing 20 feet down the slope in a juniper tree. He broke his arm and fractured his orbital bone. He still managed to crawl out of the canyon to his car and drive himself home.
The trail slaloms between piñon and juniper trees and over limestone ledges just a few yards from the rim. On a cool, partly sunny day, we encounter just one couple, who were trail running and taking photos of each other in front of the spectacular canyon and the tombstone peaks beyond. It’s a fantastic trail, but to draw the sort of crowds Fruita and Moab does, Emery will need to build dozens more like it. Then, of course, this trail would be packed, along with camper vans and trailers jammed into the trailheads. The inevitable downside to investing in outdoor recreation, of course, is the loss of this sort of solitude.
As we drive back to town, I ask Guymon about this trade-off. Is he ready to welcome the masses in order to support the county’s transition from coal to recreation?
He looks out the window, seemingly tracing routes in his mind along the red earth. Then he turns to me and says, “I see bike trails everywhere.”