May 24, 1999

Greens not welcome in Escalante

by Brent Israelsen
High Country News

ESCALANTE, Utah - Heavy machinery rolled into town the week of April 12. Construction was imminent on the $7.5 million New Wide Hollow Reservoir that would provide water for a couple dozen ranchers in this rural southern Utah town.

Then, on April 15, under pressure from environmentalists who say the reservoir would harm the Escalante River, the Bureau of Land Management put the project on hold. That night, someone re-arranged an irrigation pipe on the property of Patrick Diehl and Tori Woodward, recent arrivals from California who have opposed the reservoir. A valve was opened and 32,000 gallons of water gushed into a hole the couple had recently dug for a shop and studio.

The couple reported the incident to the police but have received little sympathy from locals. Instead, a week later, the New Escalante Irrigation Company sent Diehl and Woodward a notice that the "open pipe" that flooded their excavation was a violation of company rules, and they would have to pay a $1,150 fine.

The sabotage is just one sign that tensions are rising in this ranching town, pop. 1,200, which is struggling to adjust to life with a national monument in its back yard, and conservationists pushing to set aside more of the landscape as wilderness.

"They need a better grip on Escalante’s background, customs and culture," Escalante Mayor Lenza Wilson says of green-leaning newcomers. "The jury (of local opinion) has returned a very strong verdict, and they are not welcome here."

An unenviable position

The New Escalante Irrigation Co. currently draws water from the Wide Hollow Reservoir, which has filled with so much silt in the past few years that it can hold just 1,000 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons. It takes about 5 acre-feet of water to grow a season’s worth of alfalfa on an acre of land in Escalante. By July or August, the irrigation company is usually out of water.

The proposed New Wide Hollow Reservoir would provide an additional 6,100 acre-feet of water, which the irrigation company says would be used to grow alfalfa. "That reservoir is our lifeline," said irrigation company water master Pat Coughlin. "Our livelihood depends on our water storage."

But wilderness advocates argue that the new reservoir would dry up a creek and disrupt the flow of the Escalante River. On April 11, Patrick Diehl criticized the dam in the Salt Lake Tribune for its potential to harm the river ecosystem downstream. He also suggested that that the irrigation company wanted the extra water not for agriculture but for more lucrative residential development.

To Escalante residents, it was the final insult. "I’m a man of few words, and when I speak, they are real harsh," said Barry Barnson, a 31-year Escalante resident and member of the irrigation company’s board. "The thing that got Patrick Diehl in trouble is he took the route that we’re a bunch of idiots."

Barnson and other irrigation company board members have implied that Diehl and Woodward are responsible for the errant water, either through negligence or as a publicity stunt. They insist that fines like the one levied against the pair are common.

But Diehl insists that he and Woodward are the victims of vandalism, which will cost them $500 to repair. Garfield County Deputy Sheriff Monte Luker sides with the couple, saying, "I feel it was a vandalism and do not think (Diehl and Woodward) were involved."

Diehl plans to appeal the fine, but he will be in the unenviable position of pleading his case before a board composed of people who would have benefited from the reservoir he opposed. Outraged at how Diehl and Woodward have been treated, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has agreed to provide an attorney.

Tensions rise over wilderness

Wilderness advocates, too, have been feeling unwelcome in Escalante lately. On April 23, the Bureau of Land Management held a public open house at the local high school to discuss the agency’s plan to add federal lands to the inventory of wilderness study areas (HCN, 8/3/98).

Representing the Utah Wilderness Coalition at the meeting was Bob Walton of Salt Lake City. Walton displayed stacks of wilderness literature and bumper stickers in the lobby.

A man wearing a large hat grabbed the stickers, cut them in half with a big hunting knife and threw them in a garbage can. The man said something to the effect of, "This is garbage. We won’t have any of this here," says Walton.

A short time later, Walton put out more literature and bumper stickers. The man returned and destroyed them in the same manner.

"Soon after that, a rather large group of folks began to gather around me, verbally harassing and threatening me," Walton wrote in a report to the Escalante police. "One person said, "We ought to kill you." "

Walton retreated into the meeting and asked agency officials for an escort to his car. "It’s a real shame. I feel like I have to watch my back in Escalante. That’s disheartening because it’s a place I love," said Walton, a sixth-generation Utahn.

Another Garfield County environmental activist is searching for middle ground between old-timers and newcomers. Mark Austin, who owns the Boulder Mountain Lodge in Boulder, is working with farmers and wilderness advocates to come up with an environmentally sensitive design for the New Wide Hollow Reservoir.

The Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are willing to consider a compromise if it includes enough environmental safeguards. And irrigation company officials say they are willing to talk, but they suspect that environmentalists will ask for too many concessions. "The scuttlebutt is what they want to do is trade the reservoir for us backing off our opposition to additional wilderness," Wide Hollow Water Conservancy District member Dal Liston told the Salt Lake Tribune, "which is definitely not something we would do."