A week ago the junior Senator* from Utah caused a good stir with a speech that all you readers ought to peruse, as it is both better and worse than the typical outpourings of press releases and 250 word “articles” have made it to be. I’ll pick some nits in conclusion, but it’s worth hopping over Lee’s questionable history and logic, straight to the best point he makes, that tourism and recreation are not for rural America the panacea that popular opinion likes to make them. As Lee writes
The radical wing of the environmental movement today is a multi-billion dollar juggernaut that uses its cultural and economic influence to rig the game against hard- working rural America.
It is an alliance of privilege between a new class of royalty: celebrities, activists, and corporate elites who want to save the Earth at the expense of our rural communities.
They delight in seeing vast swathes of untouched lands, fulfilling their idyllic notions of the West.
They envision a landscape dotted only with picturesque resort towns that exist for their pleasure: destinations where they can jet in, spend a few days at the cabin and the shops, take a few pictures of some animals, and then retreat to their enclaves on the coasts.
A charming picture—for them.
Less charming is the picture for the people who live in these areas full time. While tourism has contributed much to the West, communities can’t survive on it alone.
It is a complement to – not a substitute – for broader economic development.
Skip the rhetoric and political red meat and focus on the content they largely cloak. Are Moab and Aspen (or Crested Butte, or Jackson), or even the less extreme examples of Bend or Bozeman (or Flagstaff, or Laramie), what anyone in the rural west would actually want to hold up as the future? A tourist economy brings seasonal, and generally low wage, employment, and in fairly short order vacation homes and tourist infrastructure which creates three classes of “normal” permanent residents:
- seasonal bums, generally young at heart if not also of age, and content to pay big dollars for a couch, closet, or parking space
- old timers who got in just before the golden days and are weighing the rate their nest egg (e.g. real estate) fattens versus the rate their cartilage decays
- couples and families working a few too many hours and paying far too much mortgage to get in while they can
When public school teachers and the folks who manage your favorite hangout begin to slide out of the third category, it doesn’t take long for the fabric of a town to become thin indeed, the few thick strands left not enough to catch anyone not just passing by to enjoy the view. Folks who are new to the whole western scene are generally wowed enough by places like CB and Moab that they don’t see through the facade at all, don’t realize that the barrista commutes 45 minutes each way by bus, and the only reason the 2nd grade teacher they chatted with on the lift can own that perfect house two dirt blocks off main is that his spouse inherited it from great-grandpa miner, or is the head lawyer for the ski hill. What these same folks almost always don’t realize is that the facade seems so perfect and invisible because it was shaped, by the anonymously intentional force that is culture, exactly for people like them.
It’s quite a bit easier to see the dirty skeleton of Moab, as the town has grown so quickly and so much and so ungracefully. No goes to La Hacienda and likes it, something which was been true for decades, and yet rather than the 1 hour wait for a table being a regular feature 5 months a year, as it was 15 years ago, that season has grown to 9 months. This article by Outside Magazine, on Emery County’s quest to build a tourist economy out of Joe’s Valley and the San Rafael Swell, encounters what we might as well call the Moab Question without actually engaging with it. Do the folks mentioned expect their kids to take over the coffee shop, and would they ever have considered starting it without a spouse whose job provided a steady, reasonable or better income, and presumably along with it, health insurance? Then again, what choice did they have?
Lee would doubtlessly pipe in here to remind us that families loosing extractive incomes and viable ranching operations is part of what starts the spiral towards sprawl and housing problems. Cows not condos, as you’ll see on bumper stickers. The Outside article mentions that local economies around Grand Staircase expanded in the 21st century. What the article doesn’t mention, but the report it cites makes quite plain, is that a not insignificant part of that increase has been in non-labor benefits, in this case, more residents retiring and going on Medicaid and Social Security. What the report and article fail to mention is the steady decline in school enrollment, with Escalante High having a total of 67 students (and 4 teachers) in 2016. Perhaps more growth, and more sustainable growth, is yet to come, but Escalante and the monument with which it has become associated ask real questions about how well conservation can be justified on economic grounds.
This is the flip side of stoke not saving us; a recreation-based economy which incentivizes, and perhaps in the end demands, that those most attuned with big empty wild places not live too close to them. But if, as Mr. Linck contends, attachment to a place is the most probable driver of long term conversation, are we forced to relegate that to expensive long-distance vacations. And even to increasingly expensive (but still far less, comparatively) fees for public campgrounds, rentals, and park passes?
One model, which the aforementioned second tier towns (Bend, Flag, etc) have done well with, is to invest in recreation infrastructure as a means to be more competitive on the quality of life front. Our own little city has a free biking and hiking shuttle, which seems to be 80-90% locals on any given evening. It’s a draw regionally, and a talking point, but more importantly it is simply an awesome thing to have on hand. It, and the trails right out the back door it serves, fosters place attachment in a broad swath of folks, and hopefully serves as a model for the future of the western US.
In his speech Lee asks the rhetorical question of why the western states turned out differently than the east, why they have been as he says “handicapped” with so much public land. The answer, as he is surely well aware, is that by 1890 we were as a country finally figuring things out. The frontier was officially closed. People like Theodore Roosevelt were connecting the lose of the bison with the loss of far bigger things, spiritually and ecologically. No one in the 21st century will ever see what it was like for a squirrel to go from the Ohio to Lake Erie without touching the ground, but anyone who cares to can see clear mountain water flowing through the unroaded labyrinth of the Escalante. This is so because a few people convinced the many that it was important.
Lee sees himself doing something similar, taking back local land for local people. And this is important. It is also important to recognize that those who live far away can have an attachment to a place, and that living somewhere so different can create a perspective and appreciation that is can be more acute precisely because of the sense of contrast, even loss. On the one hand places like Escalante are overdue; they rode a bubble of cutting and digging and grazing subsidies that were never sustainable. Just like the logging towns of western Montana and the Pacific NW have had to painfully graduate from the brief era of large clearcuts to the modern era of targeted ones, so to will the desert SW have to find out what a proper way of life actually looks like. The scary prospect today is having someone like Mike Lee oversee this process. It’s easy to see him having his way, and the 22nd century opening on a Colorado Plateau with a lot more holes, roads, and condos, without any more multi-generational connections.
Lee claims he wants to give power back to the people, but his sense of “the people” is far too narrow in both time and space.
*Let’s all take a moment and recall what a decent person Bob Bennett was, perhaps the Tea Parties most ignominious casualty.