The specter of Moab: An example of what to avoid when managing Bears Ears

By Nathaniel Smith • The Times-Independent

The cover story of National Geographic’s November 2018 issue, titled “The Battle for the American West,” delves into the controversy surrounding Bears Ears National Monument. In the article, Moab is used as an example of a place overrun by tourists and a situation other communities hope to avoid.

One picture featured in the story is of mountain bikes and jeeps on the Cliffhanger Trail during October’s Jeep Jamboree. A long line of jeeps stretches out to the horizon above the sheer red rocks. In the picture’s caption, Hannah Nordhaus writes, “The tourist crush unnerves locals on both sides of the national monuments debate, many of whom fear their own quiet rural towns will become another Moab.”

The article, in relatively un-nuanced terms, portrays a conflict between conservationists, Native Americans and recreationists on one side, and “drillers and miners, loggers and ranchers” on the other. Nordhaus cites examples of the “bitter disputes over public lands” throughout the American West, but claims, “Nowhere has the battle been fiercer than around national monuments, particularly Bears Ears.” Nordhaus summarizes the debate by writing, “It’s the Old West versus the New; the people whose livelihoods depend on extracting resources from the land versus those who visit and the businesses that serve them – and at Bears Ears, the Native Americans who were there first.”

Nordhaus claims each side feels it has “the one true answer” to the debate’s fundamental question: “What is the best and highest use of the land that, in principle, belongs to us all?” But many readers may wonder if there are really only two sides to the debate.

In painting the picture of the clash between a more traditional economy based on resource extraction and a new model centered on tourism, the story uses Moab to show the drawbacks of growth brought by tourism. The article quotes Phil Lyman—former San Juan County Commissioner recently elected to the Utah State House of Representatives—expressing opposition to the environmental rules and regulations that come with a monument designation. In contrast to restrictions placed on cutting trees, camping and off-road driving, the article says, “Yet just as disturbing, to monument friends and foes alike, is the prospect of too much access.”

Nordhaus then quotes Nicole Perkins, a librarian in Blanding, saying, “National monuments don’t necessarily bring more protection. They bring more traffic.” The article continues, “She cites the specter of Moab, the rollicking recreational mecca 75 miles to the north, where a four-lane neon strip hosts an unceasing parade of RVs, ATVs and rafting rigs. No one wants that for Bears Ears.”

Portions of the article describe the lengthy debate over Bears Ears, from the “unprecedented coalition of local tribes” that encouraged President Barack Obama to designate the 1.35-million-acre monument and the local opposition that move sparked, to President Donald Trump’s slashing the monument by 85 percent and dividing it into two smaller units, Indian Creek and Shash Jáa, as well as the public and legal backlash that followed Trump’s decision. It attempts to portray both sides of the conflict and finds that the desire to avoid becoming “another Moab” is a rare patch of common ground.

Nordhaus also uses the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and its effect on the small town of Escalante to illustrate the boons and disadvantages of a tourism-based economy. President Bill Clinton designated the monument in 1996 and, “In the 22 years since, Escalante has served as both inspiration and cautionary tale for other communities.” The story notes how “tourism attracted by the monument supports new hotels, restaurants and guide services” as well as businesses like a hardware store, dentist and health clinic that primarily benefit locals. Yet, at the same time it has caused “a housing crunch” and “a labor shortage.”

The article traces today’s battle over public lands to the designation of that monument. Nordhaus writes, “Grand Staircase-Escalante was, in many ways, the original sin that spawned the current backlash against the Antiquities Act.” She points out some Escalante locals “believe the monument has hurt the region,” and quotes Drew Parkin, a former resource manager at Grand Staircase-Escalante who now “opposes how the monument was managed.” Parkin says, “The natural resource jobs went away… In an environment like this, tourism jobs can’t take their place.”

Nordhaus is hesitant to assign all Escalante’s problems to the monument though. She writes that the community’s declines—young families leaving town as natural resource jobs dry up— “reflect larger trends across the rural West.” The article notes, “Escalante’s travails predate the monument” and blames factors like overgrazing and the depression of the coal market.

To counter Parkin’s point about the disadvantages of seasonal jobs in the tourism sector, Nordhaus quotes Blake Spalding, a co-owner of Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah. “I could name 10 businesses someone could start tomorrow that would thrive here,” Spalding says, and claims that most of the approximately 50 employees at her restaurant and organic farm “make double the minimum wage.” But those jobs only last from March to November. The article does not shy away from the fact that many of those profiting the most from the new tourism economy are entrepreneur “move-ins” rather than long-term locals.

“Like so much else, the struggle over western lands has become politically partisan,” Nordhaus writes. She describes how in recent decades Democratic administrations have dramatically increased the number and acreage of national monuments. On the other hand, she sees Trump’s reduction of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante as “part of a larger campaign to reverse Obama’s public land policies—by opening protected lands and waters to mining and drilling, by easing regulations, and by rolling back habitat protections for struggling species.” She adds that management of federally owned land has been a topic of controversy since the concept was ushered in by President Ulysses S. Grant’s creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Of the 575 million acres across the West that are owned by the federal government, Nordhaus writes, “Each action to protect or manage those lands has met with angry reaction.”

In her attempt to situate the dispute over Bears Ears in the historical context of land management in America, Nordhaus loses some of the debate’s nuance. Missing is the fact that Native Americans did not uniformly support the monument. Though the monument garnered the support of tribal leaders, there was a vocal contingent of other local tribal members who opposed the decision that was led by former San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally. Notably, Benally was narrowly defeated in the democratic primary by pro-monument candidate Kenneth Maryboy in June.

The looming threat of becoming another Moab is all that is present from the viewpoint of those who were against the monument not because they wanted more natural resource extraction but because they feared the accompanying growth. Though the article does provide a response to that position. “In the decade before the monument was created, visits to the area surged,” Nordhaus claims as she describes damage caused by “heedless vacationers” and the more malicious sect of pothunters. The article quotes Josh Ewing, executive director of conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa, saying, “The strategy of leaving it alone and trying to keep it a secret is unsustainable.”

By the story’s conclusion, each side is shown to have a strong connection to the land of southeastern Utah. From the Hopi and Zuni peoples who consider the region their ancestral home to the descendants of Mormon pioneers, the region around the twin buttes of Bears Ears is deeply entwined with the history and culture of a wide variety of groups. “Everyone feels something cherished is being taken away,” Nordhaus deduces.

In closing, Nordhaus writes, “Opposition to protecting western public lands has flared up ever since public lands were invented, yet the amount of protected land has—at least until now—steadily increased.” She questions the ability of the Trump administration to “stand athwart history, demography, and economics” and asks, “Can it resist the new culture that—for better and worse—is supplanting the old one?” In the final paragraph, Nordhaus reminds readers that “some people hated setting aside the Grand Canyon… Now it’s an iconic national park.”

The article’s last quote goes to Steve Roberts, an entrepreneur who came to Escalante after the monument was designated. “‘How do you quell all this resentment and hate?’ Roberts asks. ‘That’s easy. Wait three generations.’”

At the article’s end, we are left with the conclusion that time is the only thing that can bridge the ideological divides over public land management. Cynical, hopeful, or just realistic—that premise can be taken in many directions.

A photo of San Juan County rancher Matt Redd is featured on the cover of the magazine. He is pictured astride his paint horse, with a wide expanse of open country in the background. Inside the publication, Redd is shown driving a herd of cattle beneath towering buttes and a rainbow streaking down from the overcast sky. “His family sold their 5,247-acre ranch to The Nature Conservancy in 1997, and it’s now the largest private tract inside Bears Ears,” the photo’s caption reads.

The single quote attributed to Redd is, “It is a diverse, iconic, some say spiritual landscape.” It is also noted, “Redd still runs the cattle as part of research on how to manage land in a changing climate.” However, the example of Dugout Ranch is never acknowledged in the body of the story, maybe because it complicates the narrative. Perhaps ranching and other “traditional” western livelihoods can evolve with the times and coexist with environmental protections. Those living in the region discussed by the article may not see the existence of “Old West” livelihoods and those of the burgeoning “New West” quite as mutually exclusive as the author does.

The few times Moab is brought up in “The Battle for the American West,” it is to exemplify the problems associated with tourism. The article gives the impression that the negatives of tourism are inherent and unpreventable. Moab is nothing more than a specter, a grave warning, not an experiment from which we can learn.