'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 4

It started innocuously enough, according to Stiles, when some enterprising locals looking for Something Big to market to tourists re-invented the Slickrock Trail, originally a dirtbike trail, as a playground for mountain bikers. National Geographic happened into town about the same time, spawning a story that drew the attention of a magazine called Mountain Bike, which featured the trail on its inaugural cover.


Moab had not only been discovered, it had been anointed the adventure-sports capital of the New West. Suddenly, there were hordes of visitors, many of whom cared a lot more about recreation and adventure than environmental stewardship. According to Stiles, the environmental community simply sat back and watched.

"When Moab’s amenities economy really gathered steam in 1993, when seven motels were constructed in a matter of months and nationally franchised fast-food eateries like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Taco Bell and Burger King began to sprout along Main Street, when recreational visitation increased exponentially on surrounding public lands, none of the major environmental organizations expressed concern — not SUWA, not the Sierra Club, not the Grand Canyon Trust, not the Wilderness Society," Stiles laments in Brave New West. "It was as if they didn’t even notice all the hundreds of thousands of people coming in and riding their mountain bikes through crypto-biotic soil.

"Some were loath to praise the specific consequences of the amenities boom, and privately expressed horror at the explosive and uncontrolled growth, but no one wanted to go on the record opposing it. It was, after all, their idea."

So Stiles threw down his gauntlet. And some people felt — and continue to feel — that he threw poorly, and nailed himself in the foot.

Here I run into trouble telling this story, because what comes next is, for the most part, off the record. One of the reasons Stiles left the Park Service was that his immediate supervisor, to whom Stiles was very close, took her own life. Suffice it to say that there was a lot more to that story, and that "lot more" lasted 10 long years and includes stuff you would not believe.

Then, in 2002, Stiles, in his words, "lost hope in just about everything." There was a situation with a woman. (Isn’t there always?) He was tired from 13 years of putting out The Zephyr all by his lonesome, and stressed out by what he viewed as the ruination of his beloved Moab. And he was even more stressed from the reaction when he began taking aim at the forces he considered guilty, or at least complicit, in that ruination.

To put it delicately, Stiles had a breakdown. And though coming out of that period took a lot of time and a lot of effort, I will fast-forward and say that he eventually emerged from his despair. At least, so he says.

Throughout a couple of dark years, several things remained constant in Stiles’ life: 1) His DNA-level honest quest for truth, justice and the American way; 2) His insistence on integrating Abbey’s philosophy into his life; 3) The Zephyr, which he kept getting out the door, year after year, issue after issue.

Truth be told, the paper may have been a form of therapy for Stiles, a place to vent his feelings about the New West economy and those who purveyed it. And that got him into increasingly hot water with an awful lot of people in Moab who would call this economy "trying to make a living in a part of the country where opportunities are few and resourcefulness and flexibility are prerequisites for putting beans on the table."

His relationship with his former buddies in the environmental community, too, continued to fray.

This would be a good place to stress that no one, not even Stiles, is accusing the environmental movement of premeditation in fomenting the amenities-based ruination of the West. Stiles knows as well as anyone that a host of forces have conspired to create this beast, from the global economics that torpedoed Southern Utah’s uranium mining industry, to the Baby Boom’s mass retirement, which is sending us a tsunami of second-home buyers. Nor is Stiles an apologist for the extractive industries; he feels there’s a special place in hell for many ranchers and miners.

But Stiles does believe that the amenities economy that defines so many "New West" towns is as harmful to the environment as the extractive industries were. He contends that the environmental movement helped usher in that economy as an alternative to mining, timbering and ranching. And he says that the environmental movement can’t come out and lambaste the New West economy, even if it wants to, because it is so invested in the argument that wilderness is the perfect economic engine for rural towns.

"They’ve painted themselves into an argumentative corner," Stiles says, as we smoke cigars in the gathering twilight. (He has decided that we must thumb our noses at The Man and poach an illegal campsite in Arches.)

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