- Associated Press - Sunday, June 14, 2015

PANGUITCH, Utah (AP) - Community leaders in a rural southern Utah county are worried about a steady decline in population that has the school district considering closing schools due to a lack of students.

Garfield County Commission is now considering declaring a state of emergency to call attention to the situation, the Deseret News (https://bit.ly/1I1XVGy) reported.

The Garfield School District has watched enrollment decline for 18 years. Escalante High School, for example, has about 50 students now compared to 150 in 1996.

“This is a big issue,” Commissioner David Tebbs said. “You lose a school, you lose the heart and soul of that community.”

Garfield County is about 250 miles south of Salt Lake City, with much of it designated as federally-protected lands. The 2014 population of the county was 5,024 and has actually increased 40.5 percent from the 1960’s population of 3,577. However, that lags behind the state’s growth of 230.4 percent during that same span.

Commission Chairman Leland Pollock pointed to the creation of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996 as the foundation of the problem. He says that designation severely decreased natural resource extraction industries, which employed many residents.

Tropic resident Gayle Pollock said federal restrictions have limited job opportunities. Fewer job opportunities have equated to locals moving away to find employment, which in turn reduced the number of students in the schools.

“Those are the jobs that will get our schools to be where they need to be and provide economic stability,” Gayle Pollock said. “The notion that tourism will be our savior in Garfield is just that, a notion. It’s a red herring.”

Maloy Dodds, 84, remembers a time when timber, mining and ranching made Panguitch a thriving community. But those years are gone. He said only one of his seven children has stayed in the community, with the rest moving for work.

But Headwater Economics spokesman Chris Mehl said protected public lands can be economically beneficial for rural communities. Total population and income per capita have increased in Garfield County, according to Headwaters Economics studies. The organization is a Western think tank based in Bozeman, Montana.

“Western counties with protected public lands, like national monuments, have been more successful at attracting fast-growing economic sectors,” Mehl said, “and, as a result, grow more quickly, on average, than counties without protected public lands according to (our research).”

The commission is scheduled to hold public hearings June 16-17 before members vote on declaring a state of emergency on June 22.

Leland Pollack worries a town could be irreversibly damaged if one of the schools closes because no one would want to live in that area.

“It’s part of our culture, our heritage,” Leland Pollock said. “Our communities were founded by the strong family unit. Without the family, you’re not going to have schools, and if you lose the school, you lose the community.”

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Information from: Deseret News, https://www.deseretnews.com


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