'Clinging hopelessly to the past'

The cantankerous gospel of Jim Stiles and The Canyon Country Zephyr

  • A small-town newspaperman tackles big recreation, and runs into a few environmentalists in the process

    Mark Fox
  • Jim Stiles, editor and publisher of The Canyon Country Zephyr on the Slockrock Trail near Moab

    Mark Fox
  • Safari Me

    Jim Stiles
  • Ed Abbey and Moab

    Jim Stiles
  • Jim Stiles, in what he calls his 'Sonny Bono' look, as a ranger in 1976

    Courtesy Jim Stiles
  • Jim Stiles finds signs of the continuing development of Canyon Country around Moab

    Mark Fox
  • Four-wheelers backed up at the entrance to the Slickrock Trail

    Mark Fox
  • Moab today has an increasingly spiffed-up loo, with a gentrified downtown and upscale new development reaching into the surrounding canyon country

    Mark Fox
  • Moab

    Mark Fox

Page 3

Abbey had died in the Sonoran Desert just hours before the inaugural issue of The Zephyr came off the press. Abbey was such a huge part of Stiles’ reason for being in Moab that I am surprised that Stiles didn’t abandon The Zephyr. He attended a memorial service in Tucson, and, along with Ken Sleight, the man who inspired the character Seldom Seen Smith in Abbey’s book The Monkey Wrench Gang, organized a sunrise service in Abbey’s beloved Utah desert. Over a thousand people attended, coming from across the country.

The service was cathartic, and Stiles continued with The Zephyr, I suspect at least partially because he felt Abbey would have wanted him to. (Though it would be unfair to call The Zephyr the official publication of Abbey’s memory, it would not be too much a stretch to call it a channeling device for his philosophy.)

At the end of the day, Stiles and I sip beverages while the sun sets over Arches.

"He was larger than life," Stiles says of Abbey. "I wish you could have known him." It is not lost on me that, much as I believe Stiles is enjoying my company, he would give his left testicle to be sharing these drinks and this sunset with Cactus Ed instead. You never recover from losing someone you love and respect that much.

In the early days, The Zephyr was little more than a local newspaper. For the first couple years, Stiles printed verbatim interviews with local political bigwigs, like the county commissioners, the mayor and various candidates for local office. From the outset, though, he incorporated many colorful voices from Canyon Country. The Zephyr sailed along. And Stiles dug it. Owning a paper automatically makes you somebody in your town.

Gradually, The Zephyr started evolving to more of a regional, issues-oriented publication that, despite its newsprint packaging, was more of a magazine than a paper. Distribution started expanding into Colorado and other areas of Utah. More importantly, it was a crucial voice in the socio-political dialogue in the Moab region.

"I thought it was a fine publication, though Jim and I did not always agree on the issues," says Sam Taylor, who has published the Moab Times-Independent for more than 50 years. "I think Jim lived up to the promise he made at the outset to be fair and thorough. (The paper) has been a big part of our community."

Almost everyone I talk to about The Zephyr mentions one particular local issue: In 1992, it came to light that the commissioners of Grand County, of which Moab is the seat, had executed a political end run around local voters by establishing a new highway commission, then appointing themselves to that commission, which came with all sorts of state funding attached. The move ultimately proved to be political suicide, thanks in no small part to Stiles, who used The Zephyr to push a petition drive that changed the entire way Grand County elected its local representatives.

"I think Jim has been right about a lot of things over the years," says Heidi McIntosh, SUWA’s conservation director, from her home in Salt Lake City. "At one time, The Zephyr was important."

Implicit in that statement is the idea that, somewhere along the line, things changed.

What changed was that Stiles had a long-time-coming New-West revelation in 1993, when he penned a piece titled, "New West Blues." The meat of the story was: Whoops! What hath we wrought?

"We are watching, in effect, the West’s last land rush, and, when it’s over the West will bear little resemblance to what it is today," Stiles wrote. Driving that rush, he said, was the very tourism/second homes/"amenities" economy that he and his environmental brethren had long championed as a replacement for mining and grazing.

When he wrote "New West Blues," Stiles says, "I had to admit that I was wrong about a lot of things."

Next, he began to point his pen at what he perceived as the causes of the New West economy. Once he did, a lot of heretofore-solid social bridges started crumbling under his feet.

In particular, he scrutinized the environmental movement. For many years, Stiles made common cause with environmentalists in battling the forces of what he calls "rich-weasel greedhead stupidity." He helped fight a toxic-waste incinerator proposed for Moab in the 1980s, and took on the extractive industries that long dominated the area.

And yet this troubled Stiles, because he had loved the interesting demographic mix of Moab in the ’70s — its uranium miners and cowboys as well as its river rats and backcountry aficionados. He was even more troubled by what happened when he and his friends started winning some of their battles.

"What we didn’t realize as we were working so hard to eliminate the extractive industries from the face of the earth was that, by doing so, we were creating an economic vacuum," Stiles says. "And that vacuum got filled with what Abbey called the forces of industrial tourism."

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