Towns angling for tourism should beware of the great white shark

  • A suggestion from Jim Stiles, publisher of the Moab, Utah, alternative monthly, the Canyon Country Zephyr

    Jim Stiles

MOAB, Utah - The simplest way to describe what happened in Grand County is to say that, in 1986, our resilient community leaders got in their rowboat and went fishing for a little tourism to revive and diversify our economy. They hooked a great white shark.

This monster has swamped the boat and eaten the crew, and those of us who have been thrust into the breach are struggling desperately to save some remnants of the valuable cargo. At stake is not merely the community we used to be (which might not be greatly mourned by anybody else), but also some of the best and most fragile country anywhere.

We weren't capable of getting in this much trouble all on our own. Our timing was exquisite, and our attractions grand, but forces were at work in a perverse synergy that overnight turned a remote agricultural and mining town into a world-famous tourist destination. We began promoting just as the relatively frugal World War II generation began passing on its vast wealth to its spendthrift offspring in the largest transfer of disposable income in history.

Newly rich young people found Moab an ideal place to play and, ultimately, move to.

The numbers give some sense of the magnitude of the changes, especially if one keeps in mind how remote and sparsely populated this place has always been - about 7,000 souls:

* During the eight-month tourist season, the average effective population of the county on any given day is about 16,000, and on big weekends we have more than three tourists for every resident.

* Since 1985, annual visitation at Arches National Park has tripled to nearly a million.

* Canyonlands National Park, which affords more scope for mountain biking, has seen a four-fold increase in that time, and the remote areas of the park are hosting up to 45 percent more people each year.

* Visitation to the spectacular rivers, hiking and climbing areas, and to mountain biking trails administered by the Bureau of Land Management, has risen by about 300 percent since 1986, and will double again in four years at current rates of growth.

If I say that 22,000 archaeological sites on the Colorado Plateau have been destroyed, does that convey the reality of the boating party on Lake Powell that tore the roof beams out of a 1,000-year-old dwelling to build a fire for roasting hot dogs?

How can numbers describe the agonizing choice faced by BLM personnel, who had to decide whether to pave over precious riparian areas along the Colorado River and litter them with portable toilets, or leave them as health hazards covered with human waste?

What does one say about the virtual riot at the world-famous Slickrock Bike Trail, when thousands of drunk revelers tore up trees and threw them in bonfires, and sent outgunned local law enforcement officers scurrying?

How about the father, with his family gathered around him, casually driving buckets of fluorescent golf balls across the Colorado River and into Arches National Park?

This is the brave new world of national parks where you can't find a parking place. The most remote areas are crowded, the skies full of airplanes and helicopters, the animals chased off, the fragile soil crusts that hold the ecosystem together crushed, the cattlemen's gates left open, and the locals reduced to sneaking off to overlooked little crannies to hide when they can afford to take some time off from flipping burgers or making beds.

The world's largest industry sent 30 million visitors to the national parks of the Colorado Plateau last year, and the more beautiful and beloved an area is, the more it's threatened. This is a tragedy. There is no other country like this on earth, and we should be extremely cautious and protective of this land until we have a better understanding of how it works.

Grand County, in southeastern Utah, is the very model of a public-lands county. Twice as large as some Eastern states, we have fewer than two residents per square mile. We are used to treating this land like private property, by grazing and mining it, or just enjoying the way of life available in friendly small towns located in some of the most magnificent country on Earth. These have been hard places to get rich, but very good places in which to be poor.

This land is our land

Ninety-five percent of the county is in federal, state or tribal ownership, including Arches National Park and the entrance to Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, portions of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, and the Uintah Ouray Indian Reservation, the scenic canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers, untold billions of gallons of oil in the shales of the Green River formation, and the world's most famous mountain biking area.

Given all that, it isn't surprising that our economy has often been at the mercy of national forces. During the 1950s, the Cold War demand for uranium quintupled the population, built roads and schools and churches, and started a boom and bust cycle that continued through the energy crisis of the 1970s and ended when discoveries of foreign uranium deposits teamed up with the free trade policies of the 1980s to make domestic uranium uneconomic. We were left with 11 million tons of radioactive waste sitting on the bank of the Colorado River, an abandoned mill, and a ruined economy.

It didn't stop there: Falling commodity prices also crippled the local potash industry and caused cattlemen to sell their ranches. We lost 35 percent of our tax base and, in the face of 20 percent unemployment, a quarter of the population left town.

Much has been written lately about how communities with failing traditional economies can make a transition to a new economy based on quality of life. In the rural West, a little bit of this is true, and a whole lot of it is wrong. Once a town embarks on such a course, its ultimate destiny remains more dependent on national and global events than on the desires of the local people. International currency exchange rates or energy crises become determining factors, and a town that does try to seize control of its destiny will quickly learn that even governors are pawns in the hands of the travel and tourism industry. Unique cultures are being homogenized into the unaware American mainstream.

We are especially vulnerable because Westerners tend to hate planning and prize personal freedoms. Very few towns have ever thought about how much change would be acceptable, and even fewer would be willing to say "enough" to growth. Even a willing community has an almost impossible job trying to get ahead of the changes that occur when Outside magazine and the travel section of The New York Times designate it as the hot new spot to recreate and live.

Moab has been the subject of many such features, and I'll try to be fair by saying that lots of charming new people have come to town, and they have greatly enhanced cultural affairs and brought local planning and government into the 20th century.

I can now buy cappuccino and authentic biscotti at a dozen places, or shop for $10,000 kachinas and rugs at a wide selection of galleries. Expensive T-shirts and fast food are everywhere. I can no longer buy shoes in town, and every time I buy groceries I pay resort prices. One way of life, slightly ill-suited for the modern world like some hapless endangered species, is being replaced by another that is more robust.

The influx of new residents and the conversion of housing to tourist rental units has made housing scarce and expensive. The new workers in the service industry cannot find or afford anything. Tent camps have sprung up on the public lands. Even our new hospital administrator, a wonderful magician who is helping to save our hospital, has been living in the waiting room at the hospital for two months because we can't find a place for him to live. House prices and rents have tripled and quadrupled in the last several years. Appraised values have risen in parallel. With the steady erosion of our industrial tax base and the relentless demand for new infrastructures to deal with the visitors, taxes have shot through the roof for homeowners. Lifetime residents, who lived well here with almost no money, are being forced to leave.

Population has grown by about 8 percent annually for the last several years, but there has been a great deal of additional activity that is more like churning in the real estate market. All of this has real consequences for the community. For example, the irrigated meadow across the lane from my house has been sold several times in the last eight months, each time to a person who knows less about irrigated meadows than the one before. The most recent owner, never having set foot on the land, had the entire thing bulldozed. As each successive owner took his profit, the price doubled, causing the county assessor to raise the taxable valuation of all the surrounding parcels of land.

That is why we had a revolution in local government in Grand County. My constituents remind me every day that my job is not to argue ideology about grazing reform or RS 2477 rights-of-way or wilderness, but to try to restore solvency, sanity and some sense of control in a place that has been transformed overnight.

One hopeful development in all this upheaval is that every land management agency and unit of local government has been swamped and forced to acknowledge its inability to deal with the tide of visitors. The chaos and destruction that took place at Easter a year ago sent us all into each other's arms seeking support.

We've acknowledged how almost every issue crosses jurisdictional boundaries, and have came to understand how a decision made by one of us affects all the rest. Slowly and cautiously, we have shaped the idea of a partnership of federal and state land and resource managers, county governments, and tribes, all of which share a common region.

The partners would share information and planning resources and work together to assure that individual decisions make collective sense for the land and human communities. The idea has borne fruit as the Canyon Country Partnership - a fragile and hopeful thing, but right now the best tool this tourist playground has.

Bill Hedden, who lives in Castle Valley, Utah, is a member of the Grand County Council. This essay is adapted from testimony he gave before the House Committee on Natural Resources, which met in Salt Lake City, Utah, April 7, 1994.

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