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
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.