Something in the desert

I’m not from here

But people tell me

It’s not like it used to be

They say I should have been here

Back about 10 years

Before it got ruined by folks like me.

James McMurtry, “I’m Not from Here”

“If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?”

That rhetorical question was spied on a bumper sticker stuck to the back of a battered and rusty ’72 Chevy Cheyenne pickup parked in front of the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada.

My wife and I laughed out loud as we walked to our own vehicle, as we were tourists from Las Vegas, the mother of all tourist towns. It was kind of a nervous, hollow laugh given the implied threat.

I thought of that bumper sticker Sunday when we drove the River Road and spotted droves of campers, bicyclists, rafters, hikers, climbers and folks hauling OHVs. They were here for the three-day weekend, but all that traffic provided a definite harbinger of things to come.

Having lived in Las Vegas, I fully understand how many of the locals came to resent the booming tourist economy that defines Moab. The problem with tourist economies is tourists, some might argue, but it would be wrong if we fail to spread the blame around, which probably seems like the only thing we can do at this point.

My family lived in Southern Nevada for decades and I can’t count the times Interstate 15 and U.S. 95 became virtual parking lots whenever a big event came to town – title fights, NASCAR, any one of 50 major annual conventions, the summertime flash floods. While Las Vegas has more than one way in and out of town, it also gets about 38 million visitors a year. Sometimes I-15 was gridlocked from Vegas to Barstow, California, nearly 160 miles away.

There isn’t much else to compare the two cities. The tourists stay in hotels, but housing costs are beyond the reach of many and the rent is high. The biggest difference is, you have to go to the Las Vegas Strip or Downtown to feel like tourists are overrunning you. Just a mile away in any directionare hundreds of walled-off subdivisions and commercial areas most tourists never see.

In Moab, Main Street is the only game in town, and so the feeling of being dominated by visitors, being priced out of the housing market, having to settle for lower paying jobs and higher prices for everyday purchases are all acutely felt here more than in other tourist havens.

It isn’t all the fault of tourists. Previous city and county governments made decisions 20 and 30 years ago that have come back to haunt us. I’ve been told there was a concerted effort to slow down growth, so the housing inventory did not expand like it could have before word got out about how freaking awesome things are here in Moab.

What about the traffic-reducing bypass that was shot down before it ever took off? Or the 20-years and counting effort to eliminate the Highway 191 bottleneck north of downtown?

To be fair, nobody holding office today has been there long enough to be held responsible, and to be even more fair, it would be patently wrong to blame any former elected official for failing to have a crystal ball. Nobody saw the future until it arrived.

Maybe dragging our feet on a bypass until it was too late to build one without taking property from residents was a blessing in disguise. I hear the business people in Price rue the day they got a bypass. Turns out more than big trucks stayed off Main Street.

The tourists are coming and they’re bringing their wallets with them. We need to figure out how to accommodate them and simultaneously preserve and even enhance the collective quality of life for full-time residents.

Maybe we can go back 10 years ago, before Moab got ruined by folks like me.