Moab is assimilated. Bike borg moves south. Is resistance futile in San Juan County?
TAKE IT, OR LEAVE IT
by Jim Stiles
PREFACE: This is a story about Change...about the transformation of a small part of the American Southwest. It’s about what happened to my old home town of Moab and what may happen next, just 55 miles south.
Some say that ‘the Future has not been written.’ I hope that’s true...JS
BORG (n) : a cybernetically-enhanced race which forcibly assimilates other sentient species into its structure and hive-mind.
It was never really about the bicycle. The contraption was merely a conveyance, a delivery system for a culture and a mind set and an industry that, even 20 years ago, was inevitable.
The sport of mountain biking appeared in Moab in the mid-1980s. Within a decade, the amenities/tourist demographic had established a death grip on my old hometown. We had once been an eclectic mix of miners, ranchers, small-town businesses, government staffers and young hippie/back-to-the-earth types. Now we found ourselves in a state of rapid transformation – of upheaval.
Suddenly it was as if those of us who had lived there no longer had a say in our own future. Out-of-town investors with the assets and capital to exploit Moab’s new moniker as “Mountain Bike Capital of the World” laid claim to its future.
Like a Borg... for lack of a better word, a Bike Borg... opposing “the hive” was not an option.
Some of us resisted, though our own contradictions marginalized our effectiveness.
I had started The Zephyr in 1989 and, though I made a real effort to present ‘both sides’ of any argument on environmental or economic issues, my loyalties still resided with mainstream liberal environmentalists, who I believed were dedicated to preservation and protection of this remarkable canyon country landscape for the most honorable of reasons.
By the mid 1990s, I began to have doubts. As the ‘green’ movement made great concessions to the tourist and recreation industry and embraced and promoted the economic advantages of wilderness designation, the dramatic impacts of a recreation economy became unmistakably obvious.
Environmentalism, in fact, became an industry unto itself, with huge budgets, even among the ‘grass roots’ groups like SUWA and the Grand Canyon Trust. Some of the richest industrialist/financier/capitalists threw their resources and expertise (and their votes as board members) into these organizations.
By 2001, it was all over but the shooting. Resistance to an overwhelming, one trick pony economy was futile.
I further marginalized my own publication when I continued to oppose the Bike Borg. Advertisers fled.
New Moab businesses, with no interest in ‘saving’ a town that had no meaning to them before they arrived, held my opposition in dubious regard.
And of course, what new tourist business would want to advertise in a newspaper that didn’t want them to come in the first place? I could hardly fault them.
Realizing I could no longer reside there, I fled with The Zephyr to Monticello and for the next decade ran my little rag from the laundry room of my home.
Monticello is a small monolithic Mormon town with a disdain for Moab and all things ‘touristy’. Their mantra is “We don’t want to be the next Moab.”
So it seemed like a good place to hide out. I thought I was safe there. And in most regards it’s still a far cry from the madhouse up the road.
But it’s only 55 miles. And it’s January 2014...The Bike Borg is watching. It’s coming.
San Juan County has never been a bubbling bastion of enthusiasm for tourism, the recreation industry or any business attached to the legal designation of wilderness.
Its hostility toward non-motorized activities like backpacking is almost legendary. It has exhibited an almost pathological loathing of environmentalists and wilderness groups like SUWA.
I still recall a cartoon that the now defunct Elk Ridge Café in Blanding once proudly displayed by its cash register. It depicted a group of cowboys on the phone to a green group in Salt Lake City who was, even 25 years ago, pushing for a wilderness bill.
“Sure,” the cartoon caption read, “Come on down. We’d love to talk.”
Each of the cowboys was holding a rope fashioned in a hangman’s noose.
Decades later, anti-wilderness sentiment still burns strongly. Even scaled down proposals for congressionally mandated wilderness designation meet stiff resistance.
Few in San Juan County want any wilderness at all. The more pragmatic among them, including some of its more prominent politicians, believe some kind of compromise is inevitable.
Others are practically ready to wage war on the federal government. Literally.
The fear among most San Juan County residents is that the passage of wilderness legislation and the associated application of restrictions will further limit open access to public lands.
For me, the fight for wilderness has always been a moral and ethical issue.
If setting aside the last remnants of God’s creations was meant to be a selfless act to save those lands from human intrusions -- if our real goal was to say, ‘Let’s leave some of this beauty ALONE—for its own sake, NOT for ours,” -- then anti-wilderness people and I would be worthy adversaries.
I have no problem defending the idea of protecting the rocks, the trees, the critters and the blue skies above, with no expectation of personal gratification.
Some might think that’s a foolish and wrongheaded and impractical folly. They associate open access to public lands with the unshakable belief that to block access is a fundamental challenge to personal freedoms and a denial of the liberties set forth in the Constitution. And they see it as a massive intrusion of the federal government.
But protecting these kinds of lands from further exploitation, for ANY purpose, be it energy extraction or industrial tourism, is evidence that we humans can make sacrifices for the good of the planet.
That we can still make gestures that are not self-serving and that we can “do good things” with no regard for enhancing the size of our wallets, the balance in our checkbooks, or quenching our insatiable thirst for more ‘stuff’ via its commodification and sale. It tells us we can be noble altruists in the purest sense of the word.
Or consider this take on wilderness, from a source usually loathed by the anti-wilderness crowd. More than 40 years ago, in a world so different from today as to almost be unrecognizable, Edward Abbey wrote about the need for wilderness and offered this unique suggestion:
“The wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression.
“The Grand Canyon… may be required to function as a base for guerrilla warfare against tyranny.”
Oh the Irony. Almost half a century later, Abbey’s rant sounds more like a passage from a Tea Party Survival Manual; yet one would be hard pressed to find a Utah Tea Party member willing to support even one acre of congressionally-mandated legislation to designate “wilderness.”
In the last days of 2013, those kinds of honorable and noble reasons for protecting what remains of America’s wildlands are lost in the rush to turn every facet of the land into an industry — a money machine.
Environmentalists condemn the “extractive industries” — mining, ranching, logging, energy exploration — and devote their energies to stopping the damage such industries inflict.
Yet, they scarcely acknowledge the most destructive industry of all. Words like “reverence” and “silence” and “solitude” are lost from the ‘green’ lexicon.
Wilderness is now exploited for profit as surely as it were gold and silver. Somehow extracting the very heart and soul of the land itself meets little resistance from the same people who once admired and respected the likes of Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry and Ed Abbey and John Muir.
They will laugh and make the argument, “Surely you’re not saying a bicycle is as destructive than a bulldozer!”
Well... not exactly. A tourist’s direct imprint, no matter what the conveyance, is not nearly as impacting as a CAT D-9.
Where they fail to connect the dots and fail Reality itself is the fact that the tourist/amenities economy requires the massive consumption of natural resources and energy to even exist.
It requires an exodus of people from urban areas to small remote towns. It demands, in fact, the urbanization of the rural west. This is environmentalists’ Achilles Heel.
It was, after all, the Grand Canyon Trust’s Bill Hedden who once proclaimed, “Industrial-strength recreation holds more potential to disrupt natural processes on a broad scale than just about anything else.”
Twenty years later, Hedden and the Trust and other “green” groups seldom talk about the recreation menace. Now, turning wilderness into a cash cow is a favored strategy, not a shameless exploitation.
Wilderness pays... it pays BIG. With Grand County safely in their pocket, the next big market, the next big product to be pitched and packaged and sold is San Juan County.
The power brokers, the green bullshit artists, are already on the move. And they know the buzzwords to use. Those key phrases begin and end with dollar signs.
And while rural Westerners worry about reduced access to public lands, or whether their favorite jeep trail is about to be closed, the most potent and irreversible threat to their very existence is knocking at the backdoor.
It’s the loss of the rural values that most residents of San Juan County cherish, and the creation of an urban population center that bears little resemblance to the place you call home today.
Already, the Borg has a secure toehold and few if any seem to realize it. A toe today. Your soul tomorrow.
(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.)