NOTE: This is the second in an ‘as needed’ series of photo essays on the changing face of Southeast Utah, as its communities pursue an “Industrial Tourism” economy. In the last issue, Tonya and I ventured into Moab for the first time in almost three years, and reported on the changes we discovered. Our readers were shocked—seeing the transformation in photographs was, to coin the phrase, more effective than thousands of words.
This time, we’ve gone back to Bluff, the little town people used to refer to as a “hamlet.” What a difference a couple years make. The Zephyr makes no attempt to suggest an alternative to this dramatic transformation. It’s too late. We’re simply here to document the rapid changes in the New West, via words and pictures…and grateful to remember the way it was…JS
The Zephyr has been reporting on the changes that have occurred in San Juan County since President Obama’s last minute decision to create a 1.3 million acre Bears Ears National Monument and President Trump’s subsequent reduction of its size.
While other media outlets have concentrated almost exclusively on perceived threats to the land from energy development, The Zephyr has tried to tell the story that’s barely being mentioned elsewhere–the impacts and changes to Southeast Utah from an ill-conceived and heavily promoted Industrial Recreation/Tourism economy, supported at times by some of the biggest corporations and billionaires on the planet, that the Progressive/Environmental community continues to either promote or at best, ignore.
It’s been almost two years since we first heard about the proposed upscale “Bluff Dwellings” project. Zak Podmore, now a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, explained the project in the San Juan Record. His May 2018 story noted that:
On February 20, the commissioners, acting as the Community Reinvestment Agency, adopted a resolution to start the process of creating the county’s first CRA in Bluff…They identified an area of land in Cow Canyon owned by Bluff Dwellings, LLC, a company run by Jared Berrett. Berrett also owns and operates Four Corners Adventures in Blanding and Wild Rivers Expeditions in Bluff.
Bluff Dwellings Resort is an upscale 54-unit lodging facility currently under construction on the north end of town.
“The big picture with Bluff Dwellings Resort is to provide a unique experience where people can come into the region and become educated about Native American culture,” Berrett said. Interpretive panels will be interspersed throughout the complex’s 15-building layout to walk guests through the area’s archaeological history.
The resort and spa will include, “a large outdoor pool and patio complex including a beach entry pool, rock and water features, jacuzzi, and a small food and smoothie shack.”
Berrett also plans to utilize his other tour companies to provide float trips, jeep rentals, and hiking tours. Even zip lines may be in the future. “I can’t say never, ever,” Berrett told Podmore.
The Zephyr reported on Berrett’s efforts to secure almost half a million dollars in tax relief via the proposed Community Reinvestment Area proposal, the downsides to the plan, and its ultimate rejection by the San Juan County Board of Education.
I covered San Juan County’s sudden embrace of Industrial Tourism, and the first proposals of the CRA’s in this article:
And the always-excellent Stacy Young provided a detailed analysis of the CRAs here:
We can only speculate how this project will change Bluff, Utah and what long-term environmental impacts, direct or indirect, projects like these will have on the lands of southeast Utah.
I can identify the precise moment when I first wandered into Bluff, Utah. Apollo 15 astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin were on the surface of the Moon, performing their first EVA (extra-vehicular activity) when I left the lounge room at the Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and headed north. The Fred Harvey manager had set up a television set in the lounge and a group of us had gathered to watch the live broadcast. But I needed to get back on the road, so I left the astronauts on Hadley Rille and drove north into my own terra incognita.
I had absolutely no knowledge of what lay ahead. I’d never seen a photo of the scenery in southeast Utah, nor its tiny communities. I hadn’t heard (yet) of “Desert Solitaire.” It took another year for the name Edward Abbey to make it to Kentucky. All I had with me was a Texaco road map.
I passed through a near-empty Monument Valley, climbed the long grade east of it, descended into Comb Wash, then up and through the road cut in Comb Ridge. My 1965 Volkswagen Squareback barely made the steep grade. Beyond lay Bluff.
It was the last day of July, 1971. About 2 PM. The little village seemed deserted. One woman was in her backyard hanging laundry. She saw my car and waved to me. I waved back. I was most struck by the magnificent cottonwoods. After four hours of driving in the blistering heat in my un-air conditioned VW, the cool, green shade was a welcome relief. I pulled over and admired all the old sandstone brick homes. I’d never seen anything quite like them, though many were in various states of disrepair and deterioration. Bluff felt like the last vestige of something that Time had left behind, but that its residents loved and appreciated.
The bypass had not been built yet; the old road turned left, then right, then left again, past these wonderful old historic structures. Finally I emerged on the north end of town and drove up Cow Canyon. The highway was narrow and more majestic cottonwoods lined the road on both sides. They created a canopy over the road for a half mile or so, until the asphalt emerged into the bright light of that summer day.
The Cow Canyon section of the highway was rebuilt and widened in the late 1970s. Most of the cottonwoods were removed in the process. The bypass was constructed in the 1980s. Bluff grew, but not much. In the 1980s, Ed Abbey’s oldest and best friend, the artist John De Puy, bought one of the old Mormon sandstone homes in Bluff. He lived there several years but after his wife Tina passed away, John left Bluff and returned to New Mexico. According to John, he sold the place in 1991 for $65,000. Bluff wasn’t ‘hot property’ yet.
All that has changed, of course, in the last 15 years. De Puy’s home would probably list at a price beyond the reach of almost all of us—at least half a million dollars. A quick glance at the very limited current Bluff listings shows a few newer homes in the $350,000 range and a 1.5 acre lot in downtown Bluff for $250,000. Another listing includes this enticement:
“EXPLORE ANCIENT SITES”
It’s probably not the kind of sales pitch Friends of Cedar Mesa was hoping for. In any case, it’s a seller’s market right now and projects like Bluff Dwellings will only help boost prices more. And it will help create a market for more construction of both residential and commercial properties.
Last week, I drove down to see “Bluff Dwellings” for the first time since construction began. In a moment, I’ll describe what I saw as I descended Cow Canyon, the same road that once resided under those now long forgotten century old cottonwoods.
Until a few months ago, the first sign of human occupation was the old Wild Rivers Expeditions Garage and just beyond it, the Cow Canyon Trading Post.
Now, even before I reached the bottom of Cow Canyon, I could see the taller towers of “Bluff Dwellings.”
The project is still under construction…
From ‘Bluff Dwellings’ website:
Life is an amazing journey. Be sure your journey brings you to Bluff Dwellings Resort and Spa. Nestled among the majesty and solitude of hundred-million-year-old sandstone cliffs, Bluff Dwellings Resort and Spa welcomes your arrival. Join us and listen as history whispers ancient legends from ancestral Puebloan-inspired dwellings….Feel the pampered embrace and release the outside world as you immerse yourself in the luxurious amenities of our Resort and Spa.
Then, answer the call of wanderlust at the nearby Wild Expeditions–offering world class journeys on the San Juan River and Bears Ears National Monument. At Bluff Dwellings you will “love the journey!”
In the tradition of the Ancient Ones, the next authentic wafer-board/stucco structure at Bluff Dwellings takes shape…
Just south of the project, this ‘For Sale’ sign guarantees more “New Bluff” to come…
According to the Bluff Dwellings developer, the project carries with it a minimum $6 million price tag. The room rates as advertised on their web sites suggest a range from $230 to $400 a night. For Bluff Dwellings to be profitable, it will need to pull more travelers to Bluff than the visitation it receives now. Far more. And Bluff Dwellings is a “high end” resort and spa. It’s not seeking the Motel 6/Budget Inn demographic. To attract the customers who can afford the rates, Bluff must be ready to offer more amenities. More restaurants. More commercial recreation-related activities. More services. Whether many current Bluff residents want to change their community to meet the needs of future visitors or not, won’t matter. In much the same way Moab was truly transformed by Big Money interests who most likely never heard of Moab two decades ago, the same will happen in Bluff.
Twenty years ago, Utah’s mainstream environmental community turned to tourism as the clean, non-polluting, win-win alternative to an energy development and extraction economy. They were sure that tourism could “save” the landscape of southeastern Utah and provide a stable and equitable economic base for its citizens. They were sorely wrong. It’s a strategy that has been repeated again and again across the Rural West, with devastating consequences. The New West is choking to death on its own success.
In Moab, the boomtown’s environmentalists have only recently acknowledged those effects. Now, as we reported last June, they don’t seem to know what to do:
This is what they asked for, and they got it. Two decades ago, they should have been resisting “Industrial Strength Recreation” with as much determination and concern as they always muster for oil and gas. Now many are appalled, but have no idea what to do. Most just equivocate.
The recent boom in tourist numbers in San Juan County is a direct consequence of the Bears Ears National Monument designation and consequent national debate. The new monument’s promotion by the recreation industry and environmentalists has made Bears Ears a household word. And green-leaning enviropreneurs have rushed to the region, quick to claim allegiance to the land while hoping to turn a tidy profit as well.
But the tourism appeal crosses ideological lines. In 2020, even the conservative faction in southeast Utah is starting to embrace, once again, the idea of an Industrial Tourism economy. We reported the change in October 2018:
In fact, for decades the consensus in San Juan County was for a massive tourism economy, with the development of park roads, motels, and a greatly increased service industry. Its biggest promoter, the late county commissioner Cal Black, argued for years that the federal government had broken its promise to make Canyonlands National Park more accessible.
(For more on the history of Canyonlands NP and the political battles that were waged in the process, read Part 1 of Clyde Denis’ Closing the Road to Chesler Park: Why Access to Canyonlands National Park Remains Limited )
It was indeed a different time in 1962, and no one, not even Cal Black could have predicted the influence of tourism in the region in the years to come. It surprised me, four years ago, when I encountered so many longtime San Juan County residents opposing the latest version of Industrial Tourism and its impacts. But their voices have been muffled, now, as County leaders look again to tourist promotion.
The question, some of its leaders ask, is not whether they should resist a monolithic tourist economy, but who will benefit from it? Former San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, now a Utah State Representative, made this observation last fall on a facebook post discussion about the tourism boom in rural Utah…
“St. George was once a tourist town, then retirees, attracted by the amenities, moved in, then healthcare expanded to meet the demand, then industries and retail moved in. Moab is not stagnant and, as you can see they are building up their college, and other businesses are coming in. UDOT responds with transportation infrastructure, etc. Moab’s curse is the liberals who moved in. The take away for other communities is to make sure you attract the kind of visitors who appreciate our communities rather than opportunists who want to change them into party central. Local vision, not outside money, should determine how our communities grow.”
Lyman doesn’t have a problem with the exponential growth in St. George because he feels the growth there is no longer driven solely by tourism. Likewise, as he notes, Lyman even sees good things happening in Moab. His biggest concern is that “the liberals moved in.” He wants to be sure his preferred type of people profit from this kind of economy.
(In fact, Lyman pursued the same CRA tax relief measures mentioned earlier for a motel project he’s connected to in Blanding.)
So…in 2020, there is growing consensus across demographic and ideological lines, that Industrial Tourism represents the economic future of rural Utah. With a benign progressive/environmental constituency who once promoted Industrial Tourism and now says next to nothing about its impacts, and a growing conservative demographic looking for their own avenues to make money off the tourist boom, the future for southeast Utah couldn’t be clearer.
The acceleration of the New West startles even a cynic like me, who saw a version of this coming years ago. But I thought we had more time…
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.