Garfield County seems to be in a kind of death spiral. As the Deseret News recently reported, student numbers are in a pretty rapid decline, even as the county population is hovering pretty close to historical highs. Residents blame the opening of Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument in 1996 for closing up job opportunities in farming, mining, and timber. While that may be true, it would be a mistake to wait for that decision to be undone. In fact, Garfield County needs to figure out how to adapt to the almost two decades old change or face its own demise.
Despite my agreement with folks like Ken Ivory that states are the better party to administer public lands, I also recognize the reality that getting that transition to happen would take decades, if it happens at all. That’s a long time to sit around, hat in hand, waiting for economic conditions to improve. In the interim, people still need jobs and won’t be able to do any kind of agriculture or extraction on the land.
The reality of the situation is that tourism is now the bread and butter of Garfield County. For that matter, it’s the bread and butter of most of rural Utah, my new home of Cedar City included This means focusing on hotels, restaurants, and entertainment. Other small towns in Utah like Kanab, Moab, and Springdale have gracefully made that transition and centered themselves around promoting national parks and monuments, not just fighting against them somewhat quixotically.
It’s not just the economy that will need to adapt, though. The school system will also need to undergo a sea change. The lack of students means it will be harder to offer a diversity of classes locally, both because of the lack of teachers for varied subjects and the lack of students to take each course. A shrinking student population means cutting back further on teachers and subjects. That is unless the school district starts embracing distance learning. Contracting with other school districts in the state to fill virtual seats in specialized courses would greatly improve the quality and variety of classes offered at a much lower cost compared to hiring more teachers. UETN works very hard to provide the needed telecommunications infrastructure to make it happen too.
The only question is if Garfield County is going to hitch up its pants and get to work. Assigning blame and hoping that a federal decision will be undone is a long-shot gambit unlikely to improve the state of the county. If it continues down that path, it’s going to be very painful.