The summer of our discontent


Confession: While my homeland dries, and pillars of smoke pour out of some of my favorite places, I am far, far away in a place where I must jump over puddles in the park and almost swim my way through air thick with oxygen and humidity. I’ve moved my mobile office to Manhattan for a week, to take a quasi-vacation with my family and get a little injection of urbanity.

The Silver Fire in southern New Mexico. Gila National Forest photo.

Yet, even way out here I can’t escape the devastation that is being wrought back home. Yesterday we were standing on a corner on the Upper East Side, trying to figure out where to eat, when an archetypical New Yorker -- accent and swagger and all -- offered his help (despite my New Yorker friend’s admonition to “never, ever make eye contact,” folks here are quite friendly).

“You visiting from somewhere?” he asked. “Where you from?”

“Colorado,” we said.

“Oh, so sad,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

He wasn’t sorry about the fact that what passes for an art museum in my hometown might include airbrushed paintings of Hollywood Indians and sunsets, or that our idea of ethnic food includes ambrosia salad from way over in Utah. He was sorry about the fires that are currently gobbling up forests and homes across the West.

The fires, themselves, are the bad news, of course. But the fact that the average Joe on the East Coast knows so much about the fires is bad, too. That means that national news outlets are running image after image of flaming catastrophe, and each time the scene is repeated, someone else is canceling his Western vacation. Our economy, still fragile from the Great Recession, just can’t afford that kind of blow.

I wrote recently about the surprisingly positive economic impacts of wildfire on some sectors of the local economy. But the effects of fire -- and drought in general -- are almost purely negative when it comes to tourism. Travelers are no more enthusiastic about vacationing in a burning state than they are eager to hang out on the beach in a hurricane. No matter that the worst fires might be confined to one corner of a great big state: In the minds of much of the outside public, the entire state is on fire.

And that hurts. Last year’s Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs was the state’s worst ever, charring 350 homes (the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire near Boulder had been the worst, with 168 homes burned, before that). During and after the fire, the lodger’s tax -- a good reflection of the health of tourism -- plummeted. July’s revenues were down 18 percent from the previous year, with August and September down 5 and 8 percent, respectively. Local economic development officials estimated that small businesses lost some $8.6 million in potential sales as a result of the fire.

The Rocky Mountain West -- wildfire country -- is far more dependent on tourism than the rest of the nation. Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City graph.

Waldo Canyon didn’t hold its worst-fire-ever distinction for long. This summer’s Black Forest Fire, which still smolders as I write, burned more than 400 homes, also near Colorado Springs. At the same time, the Royal Gorge Fire burned a stone’s throw away from that major tourist attraction. Forests also went up in flames to the east, west and north of Santa Fe, N.M., one of the region’s major tourist meccas; the 150,000-acre Las Conchas Fire of 2011 was blamed for bad business in Santa Fe for the next several months. Las Conchas was the biggest fire in the state until last year’s Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire in southern New Mexico dwarfed it and dealt a severe blow to tourism down there. Now the Silver Fire, also in the south, is threatening the small town of Kingston. A fire is burning near Yosemite National Park, and people all over are changing their summer travel plans.

My hometown of Durango, Colo., which relies on tourism for about one-third of its economy, has thus far dodged the bullet this summer. But its air is smoky, thanks to fires burning everywhere else, particularly in eastern Utah, and it holds the stigma of the other fires in the state, especially Black Forest. Back in 2002, when the Missionary Ridge fire raged for a month near town, ridership on the tourist train dropped by 30 percent and Mesa Verde National Park saw about 25 percent fewer visitors than the year before. If the smoke isn’t enough to scare folks away, the drought might just do it. The Animas River, a favorite for commercial rafting trips, is running at less than 500 cubic feet per second and dropping. The median for this time of year is about 2,500 cfs.

Back in 2002, Colorado wildfires dealt a massive blow to the tourism economy statewide. Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City graph.

The good news is that tourists are generally amnesiacs, and the drag on the tourist economy during fires doesn’t seem to last that long afterwards. But as one devastatingly dry summer is piled upon another, and mega-fires become the norm, not the anomaly, one has to wonder when that amnesia is going to fade away. It’s not hard to imagine a day when travelers simply avoid the West during the ever-lengthening fire season. Sad, indeed.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.

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