Recreation calls the shots in Moab

  • Jim Stiles


Last August, I read that construction would soon begin on a proposed $9 million "Moab Transit Hub and Elevated River Bikeway." I’d caught only a snippet of the plan a couple years ago. The news story called for a three-mile “bikeway” partially suspended over the Colorado River. There were references to piers and girders and cantilevers.

Cantilevers? Impossible, I thought, and concluded it was yet another Utah-grown fantasy, such as highways over the Book Cliffs and toxic waste incinerators. Eventually, I forgot about it. Then I read the announcement in the local papers. It’s a done deal.

Promoters have insisted that its main purpose is safety. Clashes between bicyclists and car drivers have been numerous over the years, but crashes have rarely if ever happened. A strictly enforced 25 mph speed limit seems like a cheaper option.

More telling is Grand County Councilman Chris Baird’s recent presentation to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. Baird said, “For a long time we were the mecca for mountain biking, but about five years ago, we started seeing newspaper and magazine articles about Moab going stale.”

The Hub-Bikeway, meant to stimulate a declining tourist economy, is clearly one of the biggest recreation infrastructure projects ever initiated in Grand County. Kim Schappert of the Moab Trails Alliance –– which is the driving force behind the project –– said in 2010, “It’s all going to be a showpiece.”

But I’d heard few Moabites talk about it. Katie Stevens at the Moab BLM explained that, “Two EAs (environmental assessments) were done on this project -- one was completed in 1999 and the other in 2004.  There were no public comments on either EA.” Now, eight years after the public comment period came and went, some will be surprised to see what’s coming and the scope of it.

But it doesn’t matter. Construction began this fall, and as one local environmentalist explained, “We have bigger issues here than bike paths; we have fracking and nuke plants. These are the big battles.” 

Indeed, recent activism in Moab has been coming from a growing number of groups committed to stopping energy extraction on public lands, including a proposed nuclear power plant at Green River, a proposed tar-sand test site north of the Book Cliffs, plus plans by the Bureau of Land Management to lease large tracts of public land south of Moab for oil and gas development. Opponents to all of this are increasingly vocal and organized.

Yet these same activists fall silent when anyone raises the issue of consumption driving energy production. My favorite conservationist and writer, Wendell Berry, once wrote:

"To the conservation movement, it is only production that causes environmental degradation; the consumption that supports the production is rarely acknowledged to be at fault. The ideal of the run-of-the-mill conservationist is to impose restraints upon production without limiting consumption or burdening the consciences of consumers."

A community whose economy and existence demands the massive consumption of energy, just to get the tourists to Moab, needs to understand how complicated this issue really is.

Imagine some non-motorized recreationists as they make their way to Moab. They board a flight in London, or New York, or Los Angeles, or Atlanta, and then fly thousands of miles to Salt Lake City, or Denver, or Phoenix, or Las Vegas. They rent a car and drive hundreds of miles to stay in one of Moab’s many motels, so they can drive out to the Moab Transit Hub each day and ride their bicycles for 10 or 20 miles. So this is not “non-motorized recreation,” as proponents of the Hub/Bikeway like to claim.

The energy to build and fuel the plane and the rental car, to build and power the motel, to build the bike and fabricate the plastic parts contained in every one of these conveyances and structures comes from the extraction of oil. It comes by whatever means necessary to produce petroleum-based products and make a profit.

Why are oil companies fracking every remotely conceivable source of oil and gas? It’s called supply and demand. I don't need to be convinced that fracking is bad. It can be a disaster. My point is that Moab has pursued a tourist-amenities economy for 20 years. The most powerful "green' organization these days is the outdoor recreation industry, and Utah’s enviros have gone along with it.

If we’re sincere about reducing carbon emissions and want to stop the onslaught of energy production, we have to acknowledge these hard truths. We can embrace alternative energy sources in part, but it’s no real solution. Yet in Moab, where the encouragement of a consumptive amenities economy is presumed by many to be the town’s best economic option, hard truths are getting harder to come by.

Jim Stiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News( He publishes the Canyon Country Zephyr in southeast Utah.

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