Tourism Kills

Are hikers ruining the West? Jim Stiles makes that very case

Moab, Utah, a once-isolated backwater that in the early 1990s gained the somewhat dubious honor of becoming the "mountain bike capital of the world," provides the backdrop for Brave New West, an essay on the current state of the rural West, a landscape and cultural mode that is reportedly receding into history alongside glaciers, open space, shame and propriety.

The dominant character of the rural West, as defined by writer and publisher Jim Stiles--a Southerner who moved to Utah in the early 1970s, with Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire tucked in his hip pocket, to work, as Abbey did, as a part-time forest ranger at Arches National Park near Moab--owes much to the extractive industries, motorized recreation and conservative politics; rural Westerners, called Old Westerners by Stiles, fear federal wilderness designations and environmentalists, and will go so far as to destroy public lands in order to keep them out of the hands of liberal do-gooders.

Old Westerners also live in much-smaller homes than their New West conquerors, who are mostly affluent and liberal, hiking and biking, river-running and second-home-owning; Old Westerners use much less and recycle much more (what did you think all those backyard junkyards were for?); and, most importantly to Stiles, Old Westerners understand the importance of solitude and isolation, of freedom and individuality.

These are some of the founding concepts of our Western mythology, a mythology which is today as powerful as ever, and one that New Westerners, with their tour groups and Lycra shorts, trail guides and brewpubs, don't really get--or so Stiles contends.

As the editor and publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr, an alternative newspaper in Moab, Stiles has obviously thought a lot about the cultural upheaval which has been changing the West for at least the last 20 years. He likens the phenomenon to the great Western migrations of the 19th century, when many of the ancestors of today's rural Westerners replaced wholesale a native culture very different from their own.

And that isn't such a good thing. In many instances, New Westerners, despite their avowed love of nature, are doing more to destroy it than mineral mining and cattle grazing ever did. Using what happened to his beloved Moab in the 1990s, when a sudden influx of adventure tourism changed the sleepy town overnight, Stiles traces the typical arc of this rural transformation: Increased tourism leads to a more complex business sector, which is needed to feed and house the tourists. Once more amenities are available, affluent tourists start buying up property, which raises prices and property values. Then the developers, whether homegrown or carpetbaggers, come in to take advantage of the hot economy, buying up land and throwing up thousands of stucco tract homes and condos, which in turn leads to more amenities and more tourists and more investors, and pretty soon, the town has lost the very characteristics that made it attractive. In the meantime, the residents who grew up in the area are priced and pushed out of happiness.

Who is at fault? The answer is Stiles' most cogent argument: For at least 15 years now, environmental advocacy groups have become much more professional and savvy, not to mention moneyed--they are often supported with big checks by the very developers who are ruining the West. These groups have increasingly embraced the ethics of high-growth capitalism as the primary justification for public-land protection, especially wilderness designation. Who can blame them?

Faced with a suspicious group of rural Westerners, wouldn't you say, "Look, making this area a wilderness won't hurt the economy; it will help it--tourism will bring back the boom times!"

But tourism, and all the attendant upheaval it brings to the rural West, might be the new strip mining, Stiles says. It's not as clean nor as low impact as environmental groups contend, and many of our national parks and even wilderness areas, not to mention rural towns, are being destroyed by overuse and by the "improvements"--that is, road paving and amenities construction--needed to keep up with growth. And growth is always, in the U.S.A., anyway, an end in itself.

While Stiles tends to overlook the diversity that existed in the rural West before the New Westerners came calling (my own mother, whose family goes back to the 1870s in once-rural Prescott, is an National Public Radio-listening liberal wilderness-lover), his thoughts on the current state of this beloved, threatened land are contrarian in the best possible sense, and should be read and discussed by anyone who loves the West and cares about its future.

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