Our complicated relationship with the “great white shark”…

We in southern Utah have always made our living off the land. Here, we are rich in wide-open spaces. And though some don’t like the idea of land preservation, it is what now fuels our economies, bringing millions of tourists and their discretionary dollars to town – for better or for worse.

Amidst continued conflict regarding the location and logic of resource extraction, tourism plugs along – one hotel room, one dinner, one tour at a time. In towns like Moab, Escalante or Kanab, that’s our meal ticket.

Service jobs don’t pay much, but the industry as a whole brought over $6.5 billion to the state in 2010. And while oil reserves are quickly depleted, our population is booming, with over 350,000 potential new tourists born each day. We finally seem to have hit on an industry that won’t soon bust.

Yet we carry such a complex relationship with our resources – those that are both poetically exalted and permanently extracted – and the attention that is drawn to them. We struggle with how to embrace that which sustains us. The debate over industrial use of our public lands has raged for three-quarters of a century here.

In a state whose unofficial motto is “Multiple Use,” the uses that ought to be among the multitudes have always been a hot topic. Now, as mining hamlets morph into tourist towns, ambivalence toward the service sector is flourishing.

As former Grand County Councilman Bill Hedden famously said, “Our resilient community leaders got in their rowboat and went fishing for a little tourism to revive and diversify our economy. They hooked a great white shark. This monster has swamped the boat and eaten the crew.”

For decades – from the heated debates over Canyonlands National Park, through the designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and into today – conservationists have sought to protect this region’s innate worth from the destructive pursuit of subsurface wealth. I have been a soldier in that battle, a fight that has felt good and true. However, I realize that conservation has worked here, in part, because it’s also an industry. Our parks and wildernesses draw in visitors. We saved Escalante from a coal mine and turned it into an outfitter’s gold mine.

Though this tourism keeps our region alive, are the effects of the ravenous monster worth a multitude of minimum wage jobs? And can we, in good conscience, tout land preservation as an industry – and still call it preservation – when it wreaks such havoc on our lands and communities?

The service sector does not pay a living wage, nor does it offer benefits. Ask any river guide living with four other people in a doublewide in Moab. And while earnings stagnate, real estate prices skyrocket as tourist towns hit a certain “hipness” level. An acre of blow-sand and tumbleweeds now goes for $100,000 here simply because Moab is a cool place to live. I, for one, cannot afford to pay for “cool.”

Furthermore, are longtime residents supposed to be excited about the fact that once-empty home ground is now overrun with map-toting tourists who leave their waste and exhaust behind? That the cost of living has risen? That their towns now cater to outsiders instead of locals?

Yes, I think the protection of places like Escalante and Canyonlands has improved life in the region – and honored exceptional landscapes – but perhaps not in the ways that matter most to many locals.

I wonder which is the greater disturbance and sadness to those who have lived in and loved these areas across generations: attrition by a billion footsteps, or devastation à la earthmover? And which holds the most hope for a bright future?

I live in Moab thanks to the visitors I try to avoid on my hikes, but I can no longer ignore my relationship to them. And so I am left to wonder: Is it possible to do right by our landscapes and our economy, or are the two mutually exclusive?

The longer I live here, the less I know about the economic equation that will bring everything into balance. This is the landscape of my heart. I don’t want to see it auctioned off to the highest – and least emotionally invested – bidder, whether that be oil or incoming visitors. Yet I also understand that the land is the only moneymaking resource we have. Here, our sole recourse seems to be exploiting that which we love.

I believe in the importance of landscape preservation even as I seek answers to the questions of preservation’s costs. I want to celebrate the dying threat of extractive industry on Utah’s protected lands even as I mourn the damage industrial tourism wreaks on landscapes and communities.

With the best of intentions, we landed our great white shark. Now, how do we keep it from devouring the heart of our redrock home?

Jen Jackson is a writer and business owner in Moab.

ByBy Jen Jackson