(PANGUITCH) — Garfield County commissioners officially declared a state of emergency Monday for declining school enrollment, an issue they say reflects a larger problem that has been threatening their communities for decades.
The drop in students, nearly 300 in the last 18 years, depicts a phenomenon that they say is dampening economic opportunity. Leland Pollock, Garfield County Commission chairman, said the county’s struggles began with the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, which he said designated 93 percent of the county as federal land and ultimately led to the demise of a once rich economy built from natural resource extraction industries. Pollock said those restrictions have reduced most job opportunities to tourism, which only attracts seasonal workers and does not appeal to family men and women. That’s why families who have lived in Garfield County for generations are splitting as their children move away in search of more opportunity, he said. Along with declaring a state of emergency, the Garfield County Commission “demands restoration of responsible natural resource extraction programs that support family life and the public schools in Garfield County,” according to the resolution.
Pollock said the purpose of the declaration is to draw the attention of state and congressional leaders to help drive economic development and solve public land issues.
However, groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance have pushed to keep public lands in federal hands to prevent environmental impact or development.
“Rural towns across America are losing population, regardless of whether they are surrounded by federal land or private land,” said alliance spokesman Mathew Gross. “It seems doubtful that the future of Garfield County lies in coal, which is an industry that has been shedding jobs across the country due to mechanization and falling demand.”