NOTE: This is the first in a series. What has changed in Moab & Vicinity in the last couple of decades? These are my own remembrances going back to the late 70s. What was here…what’s gone…what’s lost forever? And…what’s new? JS
THE CANADA GEESE…1976
When I first came to Moab in the late 70s, I spent some time at what was then simply called “The Ranch House.” It was a magnificent ramshackle brick mansion just north of town (Now it’s the front for Moab Springs Condos). My friend Doug Treadway, a park ranger at the Maze, rented the house from local realtor Ray Tibbetts during the off-season for a hundred bucks a month, and I slept on Treadway’s couch a few times in those long ago days. It was also the site of many notorious poker games attended by, among others, Ed Abbey (see Ranger Stiles #3). In fact, I met Cactus Ed right there in the front room.
Invariably, especially in the winter and early spring, the meadow across the road from the Ranch House was a gathering place for thousands of Canada Geese. From late November until mid-March the cacophony of honking water fowl was amazing. They’d come right up to the road and if I recall correctly, the area just west of the highway was wet and marshy back then. It was a sight to behold. Many of the honkers could be seen circling the north end of town during the day and then in the late afternoon, they’d return to the meadow. The noise from the geese at night was a deafening but delightful kind of dissonant music.
Over the years, the numbers diminished, at least near the roadside. In the last couple of decades, I can’t recall ever seeing them at their old winter stomping grounds, though perhaps they’ve relocated some where nearer the Sloughs. I hope so.
Jump ahead. February 2019.
Just up the road, maybe 150 yards from the old Canada Goose meadow, ground was broken on Moab’s latest addition to the tourist infrastructure. The story was breathlessly reported in the local papers. To celebrate the event, its organizers hired a local mountain biker to launch his vehicle directly over the Event participants. It was quite a sight. From Canada Geese to this, in just a few decades. The mind boggles.
The Moab Sun News celebrated the bike jump “as recognition from officials of the Moab area’s popularity as a mountain biking destination.”
The developer posted a press release to publicize the big event…
“Wyndham Destinations (NYSE: WYND), the world’s largest vacation ownership and vacation exchange company, today announced the proposed development of a new timeshare resort in Moab, Utah, working with developer Gardiner Properties.”
I could scarcely contain my excitement. The promo continued:
“… the new Moab property is expected to feature more than 150 well-appointed condo-style units including one-, two- and three-bedroom suites for WorldMark by Wyndham owners and guests visiting the beautiful destination of Moab, Utah, gateway to two of America’s most stunning national parks.”
The developer promised that even larger suites with “enhanced amenities” would be added to the Moab site, which caused undue and perhaps inappropriate speculation on my part. In fact, they claimed, “the new resort will be the largest development project in Moab history and will be designed to complement the natural features of the region. The main entrance will include a glass entry allowing guests to enjoy the breathtaking beauty surrounding the resort.”
I had just been thinking how Moab needed a world-class resort with big windows and enhanced amenities and a $300/night price tag to “complement the natural features of the region.”
Really…take away those enhanced amenities and what have you got but a bunch of rocks, right?
As for the goose gathering place, its owners have big plans for that remnant of Old Moab as well. The City has placed a temporary six month moratorium on new commercial construction, which has slowed down the process, but check back with me in five years… Let’s see how long the Moratorium lasts.
THE KLONDIKE BLUFFS… 1976
As recently as 20 years ago, the area west of Arches National Park and east of US 191 was virtually empty and forgotten. A mostly abandoned patchwork of jeep tracks, vestiges of the uranium days, crossed barren stretches of blackbrush, cactus, and ancient junipers. Entrada caprock—from the air, the formation looks like miles and miles of buttermilk biscuits— stretches from the summit of Salt Valley for miles to the west. It’s rough broken country.
When I worked at Arches we used to wander west of the park boundary, just to see what was out there. It was as quiet and remote a place as I’ve ever known. A century ago, ranchers ran cattle out there, though the pickings were slim. I’d find the occasional pile of rusty cans, or a stray horseshoe, or the decades old remains of an old campfire. The classic cowboy camp. The legendary Bill Tibbetts was out there in the 1920s. I even know precisely where he paused one day to uniquely escape the desert heat.
Signs of a few old uranium mines still dotted the landscape. Nothing else. It was a landscape noted for its magnificent desolation—the Mancos badlands, the desiccated landscape, the miles of naked white Entrada caprock–and the Silence. All of it made this area special to me.
And because it lay directly adjacent to the west boundary of Arches, I assumed that it would be left alone. Environmentalists love “buffer zones;” surely they’d fight to protect this area. Besides…who’d want it anyway?
I should have known better.
Just a year ago, an article was posted on Moab’s Rim Tours web site, called “How Moab Built 150 Miles of Single-track in Just 10 Years.” In the story, author and former SUWA staffer Franklin Seal explained how this empty landscape became another monetary asset in the all-consuming World of Industrial Recreation.
He noted that while Moab had been called the “Mountain Bike Capital” for many years…
“…by the early 2000’s, other mountain bike destinations, like neighboring Fruita, CO, had become famous for their newly developed singletrack trails, and leaders of Moab’s mountain bike community knew they had to do something to keep up..”
As the article states, the new trails were built to help boost what enviropreneurs saw as a flagging mountain bike economy. They simply wanted to bring MORE people and more tourist dollars to the area. It was about money, about boosting the Moab Industrial Tourism economy. Nothing else. It wasn’t about protection, it wasn’t about environmental preservation. It was about Capitalism.
And it was done with the full cooperation of the BLM. The non-profit organization “Moab Trail Mix” worked hand-in-hand with the federal government to make it all happen. As boosters from both the private and public sector pushed for an expanded Industrial Recreation economy, their enthusiasm was embraced officially in the BLM’s updated Resource Management Plan.
The existing jeep tracks had served the mountain bike community well. But now, to generate more enthusiasm, i.e., tourist money, the BLM —to the delight of the biking/recreation industry— approved the construction of at least 150 miles of new trail, through areas previously untouched by humans.
Scott Escott, the Trail Coordinator for Trail Mix, played a major role in creating and constructing hundreds of miles of bike trail in Grand County. In the Rim Tour article, Escott explained to Seal that, “I think what a lot of people don’t realize (is that the BLM) supply for us archaeology, paleontology, they write the EAs, if we have wildlife issues, soil issues, they build us parking lots. If I need a bobcat or a bulldozer or whatever, they’re there for us.”
And their plan succeeded beyond even their wildest dreams. Former Grand County Councilwoman Kimberly Schappert and the founder of Trail Mix once proclaimed, “It’s all going to be a showpiece.”
It certainly has become…well…something. Just look at Moab. And look beyond Moab. The stunning degradation and destruction extends far beyond the city limits.
#1: BUILDING BIKE TRAILS…
In fact, the combined efforts of the Industrial Recreation promoters— those self-serving Enviropreneurs — and their allies in the BLM have accomplished again what they’ve done so many times before. They’ve promoted a “hidden gem,” a forgotten piece of wild country once protected by its anonymity, and pushed it full-speed to the brink of destruction. Or at least they think so. Now that they’ve helped to ruin, they want to regulate it. To save it.
Yes, the BLM has a plan. It wants to protect the very landscape it conspired to degrade in the only way it knows how. Last month the agency posted this press release. They even sent a copy to The Zephyr:
Here is their statement:
“This popular recreation area is approximately 23 miles north of Moab and is identified as a mountain bike focus area in the Moab Resource Management Plan. The area includes approximately 14,600 acres located between US Route 191 and Arches National Park. In addition to camping, hiking, and riding opportunities the area is rich in cultural and paleontological resources,including the Copper Ridge Sauropod Trail.
“Due to the focus area’s popularity, excessive dispersed camping is impacting public health, wildlife habitat, vegetation and soils, grazing operations, and sensitive cultural and paleontological resources. (emphasis added)
“The BLM proposes to designate campsites, place signs, provide new guidance for human waste, revegetate and restore disturbed areas, and restrict firewood collection for campfires.”
And the BLM actually included this photograph to emphasize the need for more regulation:
The public lands now in jeopardy were once virtually unused and forgotten. The “cultural and paleontological resources” were preserved, because no one knew they were there. The land was in fact healing. But perhaps that was the problem. The Land was doing nothing to generate revenues for anyone. The Industrial Tourism promoters saw an opportunity, they played their cards well, and now in 2019, that once empty landscape needs “protection” from overuse.
Is this is the future of public lands in Southeast Utah? For the Moab area, the Future has already arrived and the most ardent proponents of this kind of future are now trying to “mitigate” the impacts. As we reported last Fall, the same people who once saw the Moab area’s natural beauty as a ‘thing’ to commodify are now looking South to San Juan County with the recently created Bears Ears National Monument (big version or small…it doesn’t matter) as its latest marketing tool.
For all of us who have long called ourselves “environmentalists,’ when it came to protecting the land, is this really what we had in mind?
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.