“Moab has gone insane,” a friend, long-time Moabite, is telling me as we get stalled in traffic on Main Street.
The pigeon flocks of tourists on the streets mill and gawk and make their purchases. Wait for red light, wait for green light. “It used to not be this way. There’s too many people coming in,” my friend tells me. “Too much tourism. We’ve gone past the limit.”
I ask what limits might be proposed. My friend doesn’t have a workable answer – at least not one that doesn’t involve the destruction of the model of the tourist economy in Moab.
For of course tourism is based on continual growth. One must always have more visitorship. A level of tourism that remained the same year after year would be considered an economic disaster.
Growth, then, is the path to follow under the current paradigm. Continual growth on a planet of limited resources, as my friend notes, is a fool’s errand. In a remote desert town like Moab, surrounded by vast uninhabitable lands, supplied at the end of supply lines that are long and fragile, dependent on a questionable reserve of cheap fossil fuel, it looks indeed to be somewhat lunatic.
To my knowledge there is as yet no viable, sane plan for future development in the Moab area..
A real plan for Moab would examine, among other factors, the environmental impacts of traffic: noise, pollution, road damage, and vibration damage. There are landlords on Main Street who no doubt can attest to the effect on their infrastructure of industrial-scale truck traffic.
The plan would encompass traffic counts on other heavily traveled arteries, such as 400 East, to determine acceptable volume. And it would mandate air quality and particulate studies to determine what level of pollution meets safety standards.
A viable and sane plan would be regional, holistic. It would scrutinize comprehensively the total available supply of surface water and ground water and tie this supply to population growth. Such a plan would look at the available supply and calculate future supplies when adjusted for the facts of climate change. Almost every model of climate change in the Southwest predicts more heat, more dust, more thirst, less water for crops and people.
Take a look at Ken’s Lake and you get a sense of the prospects.
A plan for the future of Moab would not simply encompass the limits of carrying capacity.
It would most importantly take into account the question of values, aesthetics, and community.
What kind of life is wanted in Moab?
Does it want to become a city of 20,000 or 30,000 people? Or more? Do residents choose to live here because they hope one day the streets will be so crowded and clogged, the trails nearby so abused, that it will no longer be worth living in Moab? Hell, they’ll say, the rents are already high enough, the wages – when adjusted for living costs – as rotten as you’ll find in Utah.
But perhaps Moab is too far gone, addicted to boom times, and, like the addict, heedless of the future.
In the course of a magazine article I’ve been writing, for the American Prospect, I spent a few hours with one of the grand old men of Moab tourism, Ray Tibbetts, who is 81 years old. Tibbetts welcomed me into his garden at his home on the east side. As early as the mid-60s, Tibbetts, a one-time deputy sheriff turned uranium speculator turned real estate broker, had proselytized the idea of national parks to increase visitorship in Moab.
Tibbetts had also run a clothing store on Main Street. He was a member of a retailer’s coalition in the 1970s and 1980s, its purpose to lobby for growth. He was one of the spearhead figures of the Sagebrush Rebellion in Utah. Tibbetts wanted – still wants – control of federal public lands ceded to the state, preferably to the county.
He and I talked in sweet shade under the tall trees on his property. He said something about “being a treehugger.”
“The town is bigger than I prefer,” Tibbetts told me after we talked a while. “I’m getting to the point that I hate to go downtown because of the traffic.”
He paused, and for a moment seemed regretful. “Too many people. Moab’s in a boom,” he said. “I helped promote a helluva lot of the tourism business. I didn’t quite know the ramifications.”