In 1985, when Susan and I decided that place was more important than career, Moab was that place and our careers in Washington, D.C., seemed irrelevant.
Moab was deep in an energy development bust, houses were empty, property values had tanked. Community leaders seemed convinced that only “industrial” development could restore the local economy. While the leaders tolerated tourism development, both tourism and the “hippies” of Castle Valley had to be kept in check lest they jeopardize future resource exploitation.
But Bette Stanton, who was Grand County’s point person for film and economic development, had a different vision. She knew Moab would become a tourist destination – it was only a matter of time.
Bette’s vision, and my work for the USDA Office of Rural Development Services, brought local leaders together to consider the possibilities. Our efforts were covered extensively by the Moab Times-Independent in 1985-86.
A main conclusion endorsed by those community leaders was that Moab could become a center for outdoor adventure. The key would be lots of adventure events in addition to the half-marathon and Jeep Safari.
We looked to the mountains. Early in 1986 winter recreation enthusiasts sponsored the Inversion Festival as a way for people to escape the inversions on the Wasatch Front.
A major result was that local skiers and snowmobilers found that we liked each other and we could work together, not only to avoid conflict but also to ensure safe access to the mountain backcountry.
Safety in avalanche terrain was the major issue.
The Forest Service took the lead. In 1989, years of community education and lobbying led to creation of the La Sal Avalanche Center as part of the Moab Ranger District of the Manti-La Sal National Forest.
The question became how to get to the areas with enough snow and slope to make for good skiing. It was hard to convince the county commissioners that money spent to plow access roads would benefit more than just a few “tree-huggers.”
In the late 1980s the La Sal Mountain Loop Road was often blocked by snowdrifts. Even for the strongest it was a long grueling trek, 6-8 uphill miles, just to get from the lower Loop Road to the slopes where downhill skiing is possible.
For reference, the current trailhead is 5.5 miles up the Geyser Pass Road from the Loop Road.
Compounding the issue – while we all lived in Grand County, most of the good downhill slopes are in San Juan County.
For a few years in the early 1980s energy companies drilling for oil in the Beaver Basin vicinity and Gold Basin kept the roads leading to their operations free of snow. While skiers were not allowed all the way to the drill sites, the open roads got them a lot closer to the good snow.
Locals had gained a taste for backcountry skiing. Rim Cyclery rented touring skis. Other businesses hoped to extend the visitor season. A few locals had gotten jobs controlling avalanche threats above the drill pads.
So, in 1984 when the drillers pulled out, the cat was out of the bag. Local pressure began to mount. We had an avalanche center, but neither San Juan nor Grand County was interested in accommodating tree-huggers.
It took a change in government and two more years of intense lobbying and community education to convince Grand County that plowing the lower Loop Road and Geyser Pass Road was in the Moab community’s best interest.
For the next several years we had to work hard to keep Grand County enthused. But the words “roads” and “access” have a magical ring to old-time proponents of resource extraction. By custom, if not by law, counties are required to provide access to private property and economic potential.
When prominent county officials decided the Loop Road should be plowed to provide access to private cabins in Willow Basin, it became much harder to argue that the Geyser Pass Road should not also be plowed to the trailhead.
And many businesses could see that winter recreation was a crucial part of Moab’s claim to be a center for adventure sports.
About five years ago, San Juan County decided it could promote its new emphasis on outdoor recreation – and save money – by plowing the Geyser Pass Road itself instead of paying Grand to do it.
San Juan does an excellent job, to the delight of parents who take their children for fun in the snow, skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers.
Craig Bigler, a rural development economist, came to Moab in 1985 on a joint assignment with the U. S. and Utah Departments of Agriculture to help Grand County understand and deal with the lingering energy bust. He never left.