by Jim Stiles
(In this episode: Ashley Korenblat’s Dream Scheme)
NOTE: In this section of the story we frequently quote Ms. Ashley Korenblat of the ‘Utah Outdoor Business Network’ during a presentation to the San Juan County Commission on June 10, 2013. We transcribed verbatim an audio recording of that meeting and provide several direct quotes here. The complete audio can be heard at the San Juan County online archives
In some ways, conservative Westerners are their own worst enemies. They have always been torn by two very conflicting, incompatible philosophies. On the one hand, Old Westerners, especially in Utah, have resented us ‘newcomers.’ They have never wanted our advice or felt they needed it. We are as alien to them as a Martian landing on the White House lawn.
“We don’t need you to tell us how to manage our lands.” It’s a refrain repeated again and again. You’d think nothing could shake that resolve. But something can. Those same independent Westerners, who loathe the sight of an Outsider are simultaneously dyed-in-the-wool capitalists right up to their eyeballs. They never see a money-making project they don’t like. They cannot resist a good deal and, too often, it’s the short-term profit that blinds them to the bigger picture.
San Juan County has danced around the edges of a tourist economy for years. Twenty-five years ago, I would never have dreamed that someday Blanding, Utah would call itself, “Your Base Camp to Adventure” and stick that logo on their “Welcome to Blanding” road signs. I wonder what the late Cal Black might think of that. Still the changes are in their infancy. A few shops have popped up here and there, eager to embrace the Borg. But for the most part, San Juan County has held its enthusiasm for a full-blown tourist/amenities economy in check.
In 2014, the “green business community” of Southeast Utah, with headquarters firmly rooted in the Moab success story---the people I call “enviropreneurs”---are ready to sell San Juan County a bill of goods that, if successful, will leave today’s San Juan County residents as bewildered in 20 years as Moab’s residents of 1993 are now. It can happen fast. Faster than you can imagine. The refrain in Monticello today is, “We don’t want to be another Moab.” Someday you could be asking, “How did we become Moab?” It’s not as unimaginable as you might think.
Last summer, representatives from an organization called the Utah Outdoor Business Network (UOBN) appeared before the San Juan County Commission to make their case for a dramatically expanded tourist economy and to discuss a letter they had sent to Congressmen Bishop about wilderness designation in eastern Utah. Ashley Korenblat, Jason Keith, Vaughn Hadenfield and Jeff Barrett, all enthusiastic recreation boosters with decades-long vested roots in tourism, shared their unbridled enthusiasm.
Korenblat, the chief spokesperson, made a pitch to those capitalist instincts when she told the commissioners, “...one thing that I want to make clear is that we’re not the conservation community...Our viewpoint, our interest, really derives from recreation and the businesses associated with that right now. We may share some interests with the conservation community on conservation in certain areas. But we just want to make sure it’s clear that we are coming from our own specific position and the businesses that signed on to this letter really are...um, their interest is economic.”
She added, “All we’re doing right now is trying to stake a claim, or at least articulate the places that matter to outdoor recreation.......a reflection of their interest in optimizing the landscape and trying to protect the assets that these businesses rely on.”
Korenblat offered examples of ways San Juan County is missing out on tourism dollars. She noted:
“When recreation is not managed, and it kind of happens haphazardly and evolves over time, you end up with issues like the fact that Indian Creek (which) is a world class climbing area, but the way it works, and the way people visit, there’s nowhere for them to... they don’t spend their money in San Juan County. They either load up their car in Colorado or... And this is same way with motorized recreation and lots of other types of recreation, where the people are relatively independent. The question becomes, if San Juan County starts to move in the direction of developing the recreation economy here, that’s one of the things that needs to be addressed is you want to make sure that the recreation assets are placed in such a way.”
And there’s the problem the way Korenblat and company see it; there are plenty of natural “assets” for recreationists to enjoy, but not the business infrastructure to take advantage of it.
Korenblat explained, “You’ve got to advertise to get people to come and to encourage people to start the businesses, but unless the business is there. (sic) Unless the restaurants and grocery stores and hotels are there, then you don’t really see the revenue. It’s hard to see the benefit of the advertising. So it’s sort of this thing that has to evolve... Like, it’s just pure entrepreneurship. Like, people that want to start businesses, and want to bring people here. And what we’re seeing is, there are a bunch of entrepreneurs in San Juan County that are working on it. That are starting different outfitting businesses and restaurants and really look at, gee, this is a beautiful place. Lots of people want to come here. I want to live here. How can I make a living here. so there’s a whole bunch of dots. Its’ definitely not a linear process.”
Korenblat proposed one way to cash in on the popular climbing destination in Indian Creek... “The problem,” she explained, “is San Juan County is seeing the impacts but it’s not capturing any of those dollars down there, that drive right through your county and use your world class landscapes. I think that’s a big challenge. If there were some incentive for them to stop here in Monticello and buy their groceries...You ought to open a convenience store there at Church Rock. I think he would seasonally, make it hand over fist.”
The county commissioners asked the group if they supported a proposal to create Greater Canyonlands National Monument.” Korenblat answered, “No.”
But then she dissembled:
“The outdoor industry, nationally, is concerned about this area. Part of it is, every product that those companies make can be found around here being used, pretty much everyday. So they have an interest in the area and the way that they usually function with regard to public land has been to just do whatever the conservation community says. So as a business person you’re doing your job,...the conservation community says hey, did you know there was a threat to the landscape? You’re like, no, what’s going on? They say, well, you’ve got to sign this letter, or go to this meeting, or write a check, or whatever. And you’re pretty much like, ok... you haven’t had time to research it. So the purpose of the Utah Outdoor Business Network is to make it possible for business owners to know what’s going on, and for the businesses to speak with their own voice. There may be overlap with the conservation community. There may be overlap with other groups. But that voice, of the pure business voice, hasn’t really been there.”
A couple months later, in an interview with Greg Hanscom for a story in ‘High Country News’ called ‘Stakeholders,’ Korenblat stated, “Wilderness is a good tool for protecting that land in its natural state.”
None of us can have it both ways. And her support for Greater Canyonlands was enough to generate a rebuttal from Grand County Council commissioner Lynn Jackson. In the HCN story Korenblat explained, “Folks in the rural West see kids in Grand Junction driving trucks for Halliburton making $80,000 a year. They see these jobs as good jobs, but they aren’t going to last. (Utah Republican Rep. Jason) Chaffetz has said, ‘We wouldn’t want to do anything now that would prevent us from getting high-paid extraction jobs in the future.’ Actually, you might. Look at the loads of people leaving Salt Lake City to move to Moab.”
(A Rebuttal to the OIA / Ashley Korenblat Statement on the Proposed Greater Canyonlands NM.
At the end of the day and regardless of the contradictions or the artful dodging, Korenblat and her friends are clear about one thing. As she said, “It’s just pure entrepreneurship.”
What does that mean for San Juan County? All you have to do is look 55 miles north. Because what Korenblat and others are proposing is straight out of the New Moab playbook. Those “loads of people” moving to Moab that she refers to have been making the pilgrimage for 20 years. And hardly any of them had or has an interest in the town before they got there.
Moab didn’t become the town it is today because the people who lived and worked there decades ago wanted it this way. Few in Moab had the capital and the resources to transform the community so drastically in such a relatively short time. Money (and the power that goes with it) came from elsewhere. From Park City and Telluride and from California. From just about everywhere but itself...Moab’s future was decided while most of its residents sat on the sidelines and watched.
Whether Monticello and San Juan County face a similar fate is anybody’s guess. But at least this time around, you should know what might be coming...
(Jim Stiles is publisher of the “Canyon Country Zephyr – Planet Earth Edition” now exclusively online. He is also the author of “Brave New West.” Both can be found at www.canyoncountryzephyr.com. Stiles can be reached at email@example.com.)
Part 1: Moab is assimilated. Bike borg moves south. Is resistance futile in San Juan County
Part 3: Totes awesome Monticello?
Part 4: Finding consensus with Ed Abbey & Brigham Young