Rural Utahns For Local Solutions
10 June 2003
I thank you for your interest in our region, and the courteous invitation of your aide, Donna Sackett, to share our concerns with you about bill S. 916. The bill proposes the federal designation of a National Mormon Pioneer Heritage Area between Thistle Junction and the Arizona border that includes the towns and land along US 89, the Boulder Loop, and connected roads.
Members of our group of concerned citizens, Rural Utahns For Local Solutions, live in this area along its full length. Our network is multi-partisan and members come from a wide variety of backgrounds. I would like to enumerate some of our concerns about the proposed designation:
Those favoring the designation claim it has broad grassroots support. Our many inquiries and conversations along the length of the corridor tell us quite the contrary. Nearly all of the corridor residents we have talked with know nothing of the designation prior to our conversation with them. Even those aware of the designation sign our petition demanding public hearings on its potential impacts. Most are insulted at the thought of a federal land designation without such public hearings.
The illusion of broad public support likely comes from the fact that lobbyists have approached local government with promises of grants, subsidies, and economic benefits. Our experience with local governments indicates that even among them, support is not as eager as the Heritage Highway 89 Alliance leadership indicates. We hope that our organization can help clarify for your office some of the political realities of our region.
For example, a Sanpete County commissioner told us of the designation, "this isn't anything we've requested." He said that the push for the Heritage Area designation was coming from your office and presumably Piute and Grand county commissions. (Grand County, as far as we know, is not included in the proposed area, and its mention is evidence that either local government leaders don't really know much about the designation or that there are details about the designation not available to the general public.)
One mayor of a major city we contacted claimed to be unaware of the proposal. A Spring City council member, long critical of the heritage tourism lobby, told us that city government was informed that the designation was a "done deal" and that they had better get on board in order to get the grant money. We understand this is a typical tactic of heritage area lobbies.
We were also told that the Six County Association of Governments was behind the designation. That entity is quite distant from the public and seems to get more input from the Office of Economic Development.
The OED bureaucracy in Sanpete County has been an avid promoter of heritage tourism since at least the mid-90s, despite public opposition. I was present when the Sanpete County OED director said "if you want to get things done in Sanpete County you have to go around the public."
The public in Spring City and other towns has been extremely divided over heritage tourism development, particularly when the government is involved. As one resident recently told me, "Tourism can do just fine on its own." Subsidies and regulation relating to heritage tourism has been the source of a long, sore battle.
Some environmental groups have advocated tourism promotion in rural areas because they believe it safer for the environment than ranching and mining. But local residents have taken issue with that notion. The majority has been resistant to special privileges for the tourism lobby.
The National Park Service and the Alliance of National Heritage Areas state some of the goals for the National Heritage Area program as conservation of natural and heritage resources, community revitalization, and economic development. While we at RUFLS support such goals, we believe the National Heritage Area program is actually at odds with our heritage.
A big part of our heritage is decentralism and local control. We don't believe we need the guiding hand of the National Park Service, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and a new federal bureaucracy of preservationist elites and their funding bodies to direct us in ecologically "sustainable" economic development. The great leaders of sustainable rural development- Wendell Berry, Ralph Borsodi, and Mahatma Gandhi- have opposed such centralizing schemes.
While the National Park Service claims that the Heritage Area program does not interfere with local control, we cannot see how such interference is avoidable. The appointment by the federal congress of the Heritage Highway 89 Alliance as the management entity is in itself a federal interference in the form of a grant of special economic and political privilege to the tourism sector. The bill is command-control economics in that it directs the management entity towards tourism.
Proponents of the legislation claim that property rights and local control are protected through clauses prohibiting the Alliance to zone or regulate land use and private property. While the Alliance may be prohibited from direct control, we know that it already uses offers of grant money to change land use and zoning laws in local government.
The Alliance recently announced that its hired consultants has determined that certain aspects of our landscape are unacceptable to tourists, and they were going to offer "significant" grants to communities to get things changed. This only verifies our suspicion that the Alliance, with its funding from outside preservationist groups and potentially the federal government, has more power and voice in local affairs than ordinary citizens. It also tells us that the new economy will put the preferences and whims of tourists over the desires and needs of residents.
Even if the Alliance could be prohibited from subsidizing legislation, the fact of the matter is that allies of the tourism and preservationist agenda already sit on many of our planning and zoning boards. Several members of that lobby have told me they believe that individualism, private property, local control, and/or popular politics are negative aspects of our heritage that need to be overcome. They indeed believe that the best way to handle land use legislation is to "go around the public" of rural Utah.
I respect the rights of these people to their own opinion, and the contributions they bring to the community. I am alarmed, however, that the federal government and our legislators would artificially increase their power, prestige, self-importance, and numbers with this designation. I'm not convinced you would do so knowingly.
Do residents of the Highway 89 corridor need the National Park Service to advise them on ecologically and economically sustainable development? A number of people are unhappy with the "historical preservation" the Park Service has done in the Fruita settlement within the Capitol Reef National Park boundaries. Much of that history is gone. Near that park, some fifteen family logging operations have been shut down. Residents feel that the Park Service was largely responsible. The Service was concerned about locals interfering with the view from the park.
Some years ago I was treated rather condescendingly by a Park Service representative at the Capitol Reef Visitors' Center when I attempted to converse with him about positive aspects of my rural Mormon culture. He expressed a position that most of Mormon culture was a blight on the natural landscape. It is a slap in the face to have this federal agency now vying for position as our economic and cultural advisor. This is especially true when one of the main goals of early Mormon culture was to establish its economic and political independence from the federal government.
The belief expressed by the National Park Service and the Alliance of National Heritage Areas at their websites is that tourism is the sustainable choice for rural ecologies and economies. This is the same position that many of the environmental groups in our region have taken. However, a look at the record in the American West, the nation, and the world shows that government-sponsored and subsidized tourism is anti-heritage and unsustainable.
The economic heritage of the American frontier was inexpensive land in comparison to wages and cost of living. Areas where government has promoted tourism development are experiencing the exact opposite- low wages and dramatic increases in land prices, taxes, and cost of living. Government boosting of heritage tourism guts the substance of this heritage while preserving its style. This process is already underway in US 89 corridor communities.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, for example, boosting of scenic and heritage tourism has preserved the buildings. But the rural Hispanics who built the buildings cannot afford to live there on tourism wages. Property taxes have tripled and real estate has skyrocketed, but wages remain low. Vacationers who fly in on the weekend now own the land and architecture. The Property Rights Foundation of America reports similar gentrification in the existing National Heritage Areas.
Utah communities like Moab, Park City, Torrey, and Heber City are now experiencing similar cultural and economic. Our members from the struggling communities in the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument report that tourism from that federal land designation has not saved their economy.
In areas around the world where government-sponsored tourism has brought additional economic activity, it has also brought the land speculation boom, which eats up the profits and provides for the new privileged class of landowners. This subsidized growth then creates a greater demand for regulation from those who generated it.
National Heritage Area designation benefits some at the expense of the majority. It grants privileged status and funding to the tourism industry, creating a local aristocracy that is at the same time a federally appointed bureaucracy with the power of the purse. It creates huge windfalls for land speculators at the expense of the community. This "public-private partnership" the Park Service proposes is a special privilege regime that threatens the American heritage of free enterprise and equality of opportunity.
We do not feel that this Clinton-era federal program is the answer for rural economies, heritage preservation, or natural resource conservation. Rather than creating another special federal program for us, the best thing Congress can do for rural America is to quit granting subsidies, market exemptions, and other special privileges to the corporate giants that have a stranglehold on our economies.
We will continue to gather our list of alternate ideas for strengthening our economy, improving our quality of life, and preserving our natural and cultural heritage. We can develop a locally generated, Western plan for heritage preservation and economic development. Again, thank you for your interest in our concerns about this National Heritage Area designation. We will keep you posted on further concerns as they unfold.
Brad Van Dyke