Don’t let Bears Ears go the way of Moab

Industrial tourism has transformed the town. Bears Ears doesn’t have to suffer the same fate.

 

Conservationists in Moab, Utah, have been heartened by the strong statewide and national support for the proposed Bears Ears National Monument. Yet I was struck by how many people also say that they do not want to become “another Moab.” This is a fairly common fear in the West. Depending on your location, substitute the idea of becoming yet another Aspen or Park City.

In a way, it’s ironic. For years, Moab’s greens have touted the tourism economy as the alternative to all that nasty drilling and mining. Tourism, they say, avoids the worst of the boom-and-bust cycles characterized by pollution-spewing extractive industries. But everyone has learned that tourism also brings sprawling growth, crappy jobs, ever-higher rents and home prices, and an increasingly unmanageable crush of visitors and traffic.

In Moab, tourism has transformed the area at least as dramatically as any drilling tower or potash pit. We deride the “drill-baby-drillers” for thinking that natural resources are unlimited, yet we never hear anyone suggest a cap on visitors, even as our national parks become ever more crowded, smashing attendance records year after year.

There is substantial evidence that tourism and lackluster stewardship have not benefitted most locals. Just in the last year, according to the Community Action Partnership of Utah, Grand County’s poverty rate jumped up to 16.3 percent, with Moab’s children hit hardest: 18 percent live in poverty households, shooting up to 49.6 percent for those children under 5 who live with a single mom. Half of Moab’s food stamp households include children.

A Jeep crawls up the steepest part of Potato Salad Hill during 2011 Moab Easter Jeep Safari.

The average Moab renter gets a wage of $9.74 an hour, yet it takes $14.56 an hour to get into a two-bedroom apartment. Close to a third of Moab residents have no health insurance, compared to 12.5 percent for Utah as a whole. Moab’s average household income is $52,800, versus $69,686 for Utah. One-fourth of residential housing is occupied by tourists, leaving a serious housing shortfall for local workers. Two recent findings agree that the poor get hit hardest by tourism: Moab’s cost of living, housing costs, sales tax and income tax are all higher than the national average, and Utah’s job growth in recent years has mostly benefitted middle- and upper-income households.

Those who advocate for a Bears Ears National Monument like to remind everyone that our nation’s federal land is owned by the whole country, not just the local yokels. Yet Moab, to the disappointment of many longtime visitors, acts as though it believes that surrounding federal lands can be used to extract money from an infinite number of tourists, and to support an ever-expanding party and “adventure” town.

Think how you would feel if someone proposed a 10,000-person “village” at Springdale, near Zion, or consider the horrifying actual plans for a gondola and restaurant at the Little Colorado confluence, at the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon. Do we commend their civic boosterism? No! We condemn mega-developments because Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon belong to all of us. 

Should President Obama create a Bears Ears monument, I hope Moab and the vacation marketers can restrain themselves from trying to cash in: No tourism boosters giving pep talks in Bluff, no flyboys pressing for scenic flights, no death-seeking extreme sportsters descending on Comb Ridge, no gluten-free bistros in Blanding, and no mass hordes of random tourons emanating out of Las Vegas, looking for that quick, bloodless Disney experience.

Along with the Navajos and Utes in the remote villages of Aneth, Montezuma Creek, White Mesa and Bluff, a surprising number of Anglos in the sleepy Mormon towns of Blanding and Monticello say they are also spooked by the prospect of industrial tourism. What will help is that the small towns within the Bears Ears area are separated by vast amounts of not much at all. “Remote” doesn’t begin to describe this land of sculpted red rock.

Recent history also gives us reason for hope, even if Bears Ears becomes a national monument. In 1996, President Bill Clinton went to the Grand Canyon to announce his highly controversial creation of the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument. You might think that tourism would boom the nearby towns of Escalante, Torrey and Boulder. But no, they remain pretty much what they’ve always been in the face of increased but hardly Moab-level visitation. It may be too much to hope, but unlike Vietnam, in the Utah wilds it might be possible to save the villages without destroying them.

Jon Kovash is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes in Moab, Utah.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...