Marjorie Hahn, in her recent “My View” column, expressed misgivings over the increasingly dominant role of tourism on Moab’s economy (what she calls the “imbalance”). But I think she attributes far too much importance to decisions made or not made by local public officials. As I will try to show, our local economy has responded to certain “megatrends” affecting the entire country and indeed the whole world.
First, let’s recognize that ranching, mining, and oil/gas production are still going concerns around Moab. True, uranium mining is not what it was in the 1950s, but that’s not because elected officials who originally came from other states stopped it. The demand for uranium has declined for two reasons: (a) the SALT and START treaties signed since the 1970s that eventually limited the total number of nuclear warheads possessed by the USA and Soviet Union/Russia to 1,550 each, and (b) the almost total halt to new construction of nuclear power plants in the USA in the wake of the Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) reactor accidents.
Clearly, these are not trends over which the Moab or Grand County councils could exercise much control. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has thrived here, as a glance at all the new wells in our county underscores. In short, Moab still has a mixed economy. What has changed is this: the relative share of tourism in the local economy is far greater than it used to be, dwarfing the contributions of extractive industries. Why is that the case?
I think there are four reasons, none of which local governments could have done much about. First, the internet has made information about the wonders of Utah and neighboring states readily available. Take “the Wave,” a surreal sandstone formation near Kanab. In the 1990s it was virtually unknown. Last year, local officials received 168,000 applications for the 20 permits per day they are authorized to issue!
Second, by law 47% of revenue from our Transient Room Tax is spent to advertise Moab’s attractions, thus raising its profile still more. Third, relatively new outdoor sports, such as mountain biking and ATVing, have attracted huge numbers of participants, most of whom seem to come to Moab. Finally, other parts of the world such as Europe and now China have grown more prosperous, enabling their citizens to visit the USA and especially Moab in greater numbers.
I think Ms. Hahn should realize that the “imbalance” in our economy is not something anyone deliberately chose; it was and is the product of factors over which local governments have little control no matter what the origins or political leanings of their members may be.
That said, there are steps that local governments can take to slow down or mitigate the effects of these megatrends, but that is a subject for another letter.
– Lew Hinchman