Take it or Leave it: The New West’s Big Lie…by Jim Stiles

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…”

Downtown Moab in 2016

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.”

Another noted:

“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.

The “New West” Lifestyle

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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13 comments for “Take it or Leave it: The New West’s Big Lie…by Jim Stiles

  1. June 1, 2017 at 11:43 am

    Humans are 100% dependent on the existence and welfare of other species. I would like to hear about efforts to protect the wildlife (even – or especially – if it excludes many forms of industrial-scale recreation), not more tears about how humans are struggling. Human difficulties pale in comparison to those of the wildlife (can you tell that I’ve been reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring?). Frankly, there are places where humans shouldn’t live, because the environmental costs are too high. The desert may be one of those places. The arctic may be another.

  2. Melinda Price Wiltshire
    June 2, 2017 at 12:49 am

    New West — old West — there’s no right or wrong here. There are just fallible people trying to save things. Can anything be saved — either the old rural ways, or the wilderness itself? Probably not. If anything is certain, it’s impermanence. So maybe poetry is more authentic than journalism, in the end.

  3. Megan
    June 2, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    Melinda Price Wiltshire: “It’s poetry in motion…” 🤓

  4. Tony Sams
    June 2, 2017 at 3:11 pm

    A uncomfortable truth. A bit Eurocentric though. Skip a few generations back on the clock and you could argue the same point. The people of the West, living there prior to Euro’s arriving were displaced by the cry of progress via manifest destiny. Bailey writes from the position of privilege and he may never understand issues around mobility for rural America. The complexity of what is playing out in our backyards is similar to gentrification of the New Urban. It is easy to plop bullet points down on either side of the argument. The pudding lies in the stories from the Old/New West’s people. Want to do some interviews? I am in! No way to stop the wheels but we might just steer toward a beneficial direction.


  5. Alan Cornette
    June 2, 2017 at 6:27 pm

    Jim: the more I think about it, the more Abby’s quote may be best, “Only a catastrophe will save us.” Errr, something like that. My part of Kentucky is going through the same thing, as you know, and I see no way out, I’m even pleading for climbers to at least use tan chalk when they smear it all over the rock faces around here. To walk along the cliff bases where they climb reminds one of rat trails worn slick by travel. We’re fighting to keep the ORVs out of the main gorge, but we may lose that one eventually. Watch your top knot.

  6. John Rose
    June 3, 2017 at 9:14 am

    Like Tony says, it has a strong resemblance to urban gentrification.

    A woman who lives here in rural Idaho, whose family has ranched here for many generations, told me that, yes, the family could sell their ranch and they would all be millionaires…”But then we would have nothing.”

    I just don’t know if asset managers who think that they own the market on “guts and imagination” are ever going to be able to understand that sort of bottom line.

  7. Pablo Tanner
    June 3, 2017 at 1:45 pm

    Sometimes the people that make their living off the land are the best stewards. Although ranching is an extractive industry it still requires a semblance of maintenance of the landscape to continue. Eco and industrial tourism seems to approach their impact as non-consequential as it’s always “the other guy” causing the problems.
    As a former eco tourist who failed to see how my simple bike trips to Moab were causing an issue I now understand that any venture into the wildernes, or semi-wilderness of Utah needs to be examined and held to the standard as to it’s impact.
    Maybe the new hotel isn’t the problem, per se, but the extra tourists it brings will be.
    I hold little respect for someone of money and privilege telling a local, multi-generation resident to just suck it up and move on with the times. They may speak the truth, but they do it from a position of ignorance and arrogance that fosters little more than disdain and division.

  8. Evan Cantor
    June 3, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    bottom line: too many damn Homo sapiens. If Pope Francis wants us all to be good stewards of the earth, it wouldn’t hurt for him to endorse birth control.

  9. Grant G.
    June 5, 2017 at 3:02 pm

    “The truth is, these recently urbanized rural economies were rarely intended to benefit the citizens whose families founded small Western civilizations millennia 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.”
    – the indigenous peoples of the “Ancient West” circa 1850

    Mr. Stiles, I suppose you’ll receive the same sympathy your forefathers extended the families they replaced. Karma’s a bitch huh?

  10. Janet Wilcox
    June 11, 2017 at 1:20 am
  11. Stacy
    June 20, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    Wow, Grant, so you actually recognize that the New West agenda is a (less violent) reenactment of the colonialist project brought to bear on indigenous Americans, and your response is: “good, serves the rubes right.” It’s fairly hard for me to imagine a more perfect example of “oozing nothing but loathing” than that.

    It does beg a question or two, though: where in the US did We The People not eradicate, replace, or displace indigenous Americans? Why is it that only Old West Americans deserve karma for this part of our national history?

  12. TLN2
    July 27, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    Although the comments vary it seems that one thing most agree upon is that there are too many people. So why do we wish to import one million legal immigrates per year in addition to the illeagle ones?

  13. Susan Scufsa
    July 27, 2017 at 5:41 pm

    I cannot even find the words to describe this egotistical, arrogant, downright cruel man. We are strughling eith exactly the same attitude in Ely, MN. I am aghast at how much this parallels our story. We have been tweeting for the western alliance as well as our fight for mining. There is power in unity which we are working toward all aro7nd the US..YOU GO, OLD WEST!!!

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