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Utah restaurateurs fight Trump cuts to national monument

In Boulder, Utah the co-owners of the Hell’s Backbone Grill, a restaurant in the shadow of the Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument, are fighting the recent Trump administration decision to remove almost one million acres from the monument. NewsHour Weekend’s Mori Rothman spoke with the owners about why the monument is vital to their business and their way of life.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In 2017, President Trump cut the size of Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument almost in half. Subsequently, his administration's interior department used funds to assess opening land that was formerly part of the monument to potential oil, gas and coal development. Last month, the government accountability office confirmed it is investigating whether or not the interior department broke federal law in doing so. In the meantime, some local business owners, including two restaurant owners are continuing to fight the cuts to the national monuments on their own. NewsHour Weekend's Mori Rothman reports.

  •  Mori Rothman:

    In the hours between the lunch and dinner rush, chef Jennifer Castle, co-owner of the Hell's Backbone Grill is busy pickling cucumbers.

  •  Jennifer Castle:

    When I came here we had cucumbers you know like what are we going to do. And I wrote my uncle and asked him for grampa's pickle recipe

  •  Mori Rothman:

    Castle makes the most out of the food she gets, a skill learned after years of running a restaurant in the town of Boulder, Utah: a remote outpost surrounded by sandstone cliffs and valleys about 250 miles south of Salt Lake City.

    The drive to Boulder winds through steep terrain and mountain switchbacks opening to views of the surrounding plateau. It's a feast for photographers and sightseers but offers few food options.

  •  Jennifer Castle:

    There's nowhere to get anything.

  •  Mori Rothman:

    Only open during the warmer months between March and November, the restaurant is an experiment in sustainability and subsistence. The harsh, rapidly changing weather in the high desert can wreak havoc on local produce.

  •  Jennifer Castle:

    It's not like massive changes but it will be subtle changes and sometimes its menu changes full on.

  •  Mori Rothman:

    The owners of the Hells Backbone Grill call their food "place based:" cuisine matched with the local environment.

  •  Jennifer Castle:

    You know just like really knowing that if you go to a place and you eat that food it's going to be terroir it's going to be that dirt and those herbs and that rain and that mineral.

  •  Mori Rothman:

    The dirt and the minerals diners taste are from the farm just five minutes down the road.

    The farm is called "Blaker's Acres, named after the other half of the Hell's Backbone Grill, co-owner Blake Spalding.

  •  Blake Spalding:

    If you go to Italy they're not going to serve you New Zealand lamb and French jam and Spanish ham they're going to serve you everything delightful from that place and so it's visceral you take that place into your body it becomes part of your — it becomes part of you.

  •  Blake Spalding:

    I believe we were the first farm to table restaurant in the Rocky Mountain Southwest, but no one to my knowledge was doing it in a rural setting and so I wanted to show that it could be done in a rural setting and I wanted to use the food to help people fall in love with this incredible precious majestic fragile landscape.

  •  Mori Rothman:

    Farming thousands of feet above sea level isn't easy. Fierce winds blow the soil around and special tents have been built to protect crops.

    Despite the challenges, the farm grows an average of 23,000 pounds of produce a year.

  •  Blake Spalding:

    We grow all of our own table flowers, we grow edible flowers we grow potatoes, chiles, tomatoes, green beans.

  •  Mori Rothman:

    Hell's Backbone Grill has become one of the region's premiere culinary destinations. It's been a James Beard Award semi-finalist multiple times and was named the Best Restaurant in Southern Utah by Salt Lake magazine.. Spalding and Castle have also published two books sharing the restaurant's cuisine and recipes.

    But people don't just come to Hell's Backbone Grill for the food.

    The farm sits in the shadow of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument… a stretch of streaked rock formations, rivers and gorges nearly twice the size of Rhode Island rising like a staircase from the Grand Canyon. It's a place where visitors could hike, camp and embrace the remoteness of the desert knowing it would always be preserved.

  •  Bill Clinton:

    Our parents and grandparents saved the Grand Canyon for us, today we will save the Grand Escalante canyons and the Kaiperowitz plateaus of Utah for our children.

  •  Mori Rothman:

    Grand Staircase was designated as a national monument by President Bill Clinton in 1996, protecting the area from mining and other extractive industry.

  •  Donald Trump:

    I've come to Utah to take a very historic action, to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens."

  •  Mori Rothman:

    In December 2017, President Trump issued an executive order shrinking Utah's Grand Staircase Escalante Monument and nearby Bears Ears Monument, by almost two million acres. It was the largest reduction of federal land protection in US history.

  •  Blake Spalding:

    That is the Kairperowits plateau and sadly that's what just got X'd out.

  •  Mori Rothman:

    Spalding says the reduction was devastating and she was moved to take action. She wrote an editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune protesting the order and has banded together with local business owners to stop it.

  •  Blake Spalding:

    We had letters from 150 local businesses all asking him begging him not to touch the monument because our livelihood is inextricably linked to its demise. Why are we prioritizing, you know, oil and gas and extractive industry and public lands when we have a booming economy here that has arisen out of the economics of a new way in the West which is quiet use tourism.

  •  Mori Rothman:

    But for Spalding the fight is about more than business. It's about protecting a space for others to come and experience the sense of wonder she felt when she came here twenty years ago.

  •  Blake Spalding:

    Our sort of working business model from the beginning was to be a warm hearth you know metaphorically that people could gather around before they go in to have a transformative wilderness experience. I mean I would have never in my wildest dreams imagined the kind of response we've had. We get people sending us presents in the mail and love letters and it's not us, it's because of the power of this place combined with a lovingly prepared meal that is of this place.

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