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 had a personal note for me:
“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.
Claiming to be “green” or “progressive” while also playing huckster for the industrial recreation industry is nothing new. The partnership of environmentalists and the corporate outdoor gear industry goes back almost 20 years ago.
In 1998, environmentalists from across the country gathered at an Arizona dude ranch for a “Wilderness Mentoring Conference,” to consider new strategies. One prominently displayed quote established the meeting’s tone and direction:
“Car companies and makers of sports drinks use wilderness to sell their products. We have to market wilderness as a product people want to have.”
It was a seminal moment. Subsequently, mainstream environmentalists formed lucrative alliances with the outdoor recreation industry. It was a perfect fit. Marketing the “New West” was born.
* * *
And yet, despite 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, and they have the numbers to prove it. Just ask the Outdoor Industry Alliance.
* 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, I 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.
Despite that dreary reality, environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Grand Canyon Trust enthusiastically, almost fervently, endorse those economic factoids and spend more time praising the monetary components of monuments and parks (and wilderness in general), than the reasons wilderness was supposed to be 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 towns across the West more than a century ago. They gave their sweat and blood to make a life there and now, in the eyes of many, it is simply time for them to go.
Most proponents ooze nothing but loathing for the rural population. For them, it’s not a matter of helping these rural communities. It’s about replacing them.
The recent Bears Ears monument debate recently brought those feelings to the light of day. 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, UT, 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 and 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 percent of our GDP. That means 96.2 percent of us have figured out something else do do.”
But obviously it’s more difficult in rural America to “figure out something else...” To get “educated” and “build intellectual capital,” they would have to leave the area where their families have resided for decades. They’d have to 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 simple: “Well, if going away to college is too much to ask, I guess they are stuck…”
The lack of compassion is worth noting though I don’t doubt his sincerity.
Here’s the 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 could 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 do offer some options (pronounced crumbs) for the residents of a rural Western town:
(1) Pursue service industry jobs in the new amenities economy, make minimum wage and struggle to survive. Hope to find an affordable place to rent.
(2) Sell your home, move to a bigger town, and secure massive loans to get a college degree, which will qualify you for jobs in a big town somewhere, but will likely not qualify you for any job back in your old town, which has now been inundated by the amenities economy. A town in which you can no longer afford to even buy back your own home.
(3) Don’t be born in a rural Western town. Be born in a city or move to one when you’re young. Make loads of money working in advertising or investment counseling or banking or venture capitalism, and then when you’ve amassed a pile of money you can move to a small town, become an “entrepreneur,” and lecture the people whose livelihoods you want to destroy on how they should just do the same thing you did...
And who would understand all this better than the aforementioned New Westerner Bailey, a former investments advisor from Salt Lake City. Bailey cites his own history as a template for success in the New West’s future.
“You are talking to a guy who left (the) asset management industry and started a book publishing corporation,” Bailey wrote from his corporate HQ in Torrey. “It takes guts and imagination. Are such attributes lacking (among Old Westerners)? I think you see my point.”
Yes. I’m afraid I do.