'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.

Boom!

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.)

High Country News Classifieds
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...