Back in 2008, the day after Obama’s landslide election, Moab progressive/ environmentalist Dave Erley sent out a mass celebratory email. In part he wrote:
“The progressive, green, candidates won all three contested County Council seats and the progressives now have a clear majority on the Council. How loud can I sing ‘Happy Days are here again?’ This all reflects the demographic changes that have occurred in Grand County in the last four years… Fallout from the amenities economy I guess…”
And he offered a personal note:
“Jim (Stiles), this is another aspect of the amenities economy you have been hammering on. I hope you have the courage to discuss the pros and not just the cons of the demographic shift…”
Erley signed his letter, “euphoric in the desert…”
Now in 2017, as Moab explodes from its “industrial tourism” successes and excesses, as it deals with an amenities economy marked by low wages and exorbitant housing prices, and with even more exponential growth ahead, I wonder if Mr. Erley is as “euphoric in the desert” as he was that bright November morning almost a decade ago.
And yet…despite these critical problems and the fact that Moab itself has become a poster child for how NOT to be a “New West” town, support for turning all of the rural West into more Moabs is a daily mantra for progressive environmentalists everywhere. They believe it’s the best way to “save” the West. Just ask the Outdoor Industry.
Luther Probst, the Outdoor Alliance’s board chairman recently proclaimed, “The evidence is overwhelming that monuments and other protected public land actually contribute to the prosperity of rural communities.” And they have the numbers to prove it.
* The OIA claims that the recreation economy generates $646 billion in consumer spending and creates 6.1 million jobs directly.
* Another Outdoor Industry Association report states that the outdoor recreation economy in Utah was responsible for $12 billion in consumer spending and 122,000 jobs, and $856 million in state and local revenue.
* Even the National Park Service got into the numbers act, though I never thought promoting the recreation industry was one of its mandates. Recently The Zephyr received a press release from the NPS Public Affairs office. The headline proclaimed: “Utah National Park visits create $1.6 billion in economic benefit” and contained all sorts of economic data.
At the bottom of the email was, incongruously, a quote from Edward Abbey. It read, “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.”
While the recreation industry mass markets the West’s scenic wonders, it’s almost a certainty that very soon, finding any trail that is “crooked, winding, lonesome, and dangerous” will be problematic.
And yet, environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Wilderness Society enthusiastically— almost fervently— endorse those economic factoids and spend more time praising the monetary components of monuments and parks (and wilderness in general), than they do promoting the real reasons wilderness is important in the first place.
There’s an explanation for that unbridled enthusiasm; it’s also the New West’s Big Lie.
While the mainstream media and environmental propaganda machine grind out daily reports on the economic benefits of an industrial tourism economy, they never specifically say who benefits. That’s the deception–just WHO exactly prospers in the New West?
The truth is, these recently urbanized rural economies were rarely intended to benefit the citizens whose families founded small Western towns more than a century ago. Generations gave their sweat and blood to make a life in these last remote corners of the West and now, in the eyes of many, they serve no further useful purpose. For the New West, it’s not a matter of helping these rural communities. It’s about replacing them
Most urban proponents ooze nothing but loathing for the rural population. They often attempt to collectively label the Old West as a mob of ignorant, racist rubes. But they ignore the fact that their own solution creates issues of their own that go beyond race. They turn a blind eye to the ‘institutional elitism,” the deliberate, planned creation of a culture and an economy that excludes everyone, of any race, who lack the financial assets to be a part of the newly transformed community.
The recent Bears Ears monument debate recently intensified those feelings. One unsympathetic New West booster wrote:
“Yes it is sad to watch your town die, but there is a reason for its death. You are living in a place that is not sustainable and you want to keep it alive for selfish reasons. Sometimes people need to make difficult sacrifices in order to help the greater population.”
“There is a part of our population that is unwilling to work at (tourist-related) service jobs by their own choosing. Holding out for those high paying extraction jobs which come and go.”
Mark Bailey, a New Westerner in Torrey, Utah, the founder of a small environmental publishing company, and a board member of the Wild Utah Project, was specific about his hopes for a West free of rural types. He recently wrote:
“I have a vision of Torrey becoming a example of rural renewal and progress, where the flora and fauna are left unmolested by domestic livestock, water runs free in the streams, the rocks are not mined and crushed for road base and the forests are not clear cut but the community thrives all the same….There exists the infrastructure to support gatherings and targeted conventions for think tanks, conservationists, literary and arts gatherings.”
But what about those people whose families have lived there for a century or more? What’s the solution for them? Bailey had a fast answer:
“That is easy…Education, then knowledge work to build intellectual capital. Start sustainable businesses. In Utah Agriculture, Natural Resources and Mining combined make up only 3.8% of our GDP. That means 96.2% of us have figured out something else do do.
But obviously it’s more difficult in rural America to “figure out something else…”. To seek “educated” and “build intellectual capital,” they would have to leave the area where their families have resided for decades, sell their homes and relocate to pursue (and pay for) a better education. In the end, wouldn’t that suggest a complete transformation of its demographics?
Bailey’s reply was vague: “Well, if going away to college is too much to ask, I guess they are stuck.”
Here’s the hard truth. Most rural Westerners do NOT have the capital, the time, or the expertise to invest successfully in a recreation economy. And the New West couldn’t care less. In fact, that’s the point. There’s little interest in keeping any part of the “Old West” intact.
So when New West boosters praise their own economic accomplishments, few are hoping to share that success with their Old West adversaries. The transformation of the American rural West is, in fact, a hostile takeover.
Still, the New West’s advocates offer some options (pronounced crumbs) for the residents of a rural Western town. They can:
(1) Pursue service industry jobs in the new amenities economy, make minimum wage and struggle to survive and hope to find an affordable place to rent.
(2) Sell their home, move to a bigger town, and secure massive loans to get a college degree, which will qualify them for jobs in a big town somewhere, but will rarely qualify them for any job back in their old town, which has now been inundated by the amenities economy. In fact, it’s probably become a town in which they can no longer afford to buy back the house they sold..
(3) Don’t be born in a rural Western town. Be born in a city or move to one when very young. There, they can make loads of money working in advertising, or investment counseling, or banking, or venture capitalism, and then when they’ve attained a level of affluence, they can move to a small town and become an “entrepreneur.” Then they can lecture those people whose livelihoods need to be destroyed, on the true secret to success in the Brave New West.
Mark Bailey, the former investments advisor from Salt Lake City, understands this and cites his own history as a template for New West success, a model for somebody who’s ranched all his/her life with no experience or training in a completely different kind of work. Bailey maintains it’s possible to change…
“You are talking to a guy who left (the) asset management industry and started a book publishing corporation,” Bailey wrote from his corporate headquarters in Torrey. “It takes guts and imagination,” he explained. ” Are such attributes lacking? I think you see my point.”
Yes. I believe I do.
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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