When Edward Abbey worked as a park ranger in Arches National Park in the 1950s, he was provided with lodging in a “little tin government housetrailer,” as he recounted in his well-known book “Desert Solitaire.” That was before the park roads were paved and before tourism became a major industry in Moab. Abbey said in his book that “the superintendent and chief ranger … [and] one maintenance man” were the only permanent employees in the park when he worked the summer months there. Now, according to the Arches website, about 50 permanent and seasonal employees work at the park each year, and over 1.5 million tourists visit each year.
The tourists who bring their business to local restaurants, hotels, retail shops, and equipment and guide shops write positive reviews about Moab’s downtown, but what draws them to the area are the parks, trails, cliffs, mountains and river. Eighty-seven percent of Grand County’s land is managed by state and federal agencies, in large part by federal agencies such as the National Park Service (NPS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS).
Seasonal federal workers are hired each year to handle the surges of visitation and use, and then they are laid off at the end of their contracts, usually by an agreement that the employee will work no more than 1,039 hours in the year. The seasonal employees collect entrance fees, manage recreational users, collect scientific data, maintain government buildings and roads, fight wildfires, build and repair trails and perform a host of other duties necessary to the operation of parks, recreational areas, campgrounds, research centers and visitor centers.
Seasonal workers contribute to, and must also navigate, the local housing crunch. Some federal agencies have employee housing available to rent for a portion of the high-season staff, who often come from all over the country and are thrilled by the opportunity to live and serve in the area.
“We don’t have enough housing for all of our seasonal employees, and that’s doled out on a seniority basis,” said Paul Lathrop, a supervisory park ranger at Arches National Park.
That means returning seasonal employees are first in line for a spot in the park’s housing. Lathrop clarified that while government quarters are reserved for government employees, housing is not included with the job — employees must still pay rent to live there. Rental rates are determined by the Interior Business Center of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and are based on surveys of the local private rental market.
Lathrop said he hired 13 seasonal employees this past year. His department is Interpretation and Visitor Services — other departments, including law enforcement, maintenance and resource stewardship, also hire seasonal employees. Departments within the park recruit interns and volunteers who may travel to Moab from far away and need lodging for varying lengths of time.
Lathrop said that while housing is a challenge for anyone trying to live in Moab, the seasonal employees who have been hired have all found a niche. Three of his temporary workers were locals who had established living situations. One employee lived in an RV and moved to a new campsite every two weeks, as per public land policy. Another employee paid rent to keep their RV in a campground. Some employees teamed up to rent a house together, while others found rooms for rent in the homes of permanent park employees.
“It’s no secret,” Lathrop said. “The whole town knows how hard housing of any sort — whether you want to buy a house or rent a place, is — but that’s just kind of the nature of the community right now, and so far people have made it work.”
Seasonal wildland firefighters for the BLM and USFS are likely to have the option of living in the Interagency Fire Barracks, located on BLM land near Ken’s Lake. The facility has 15 single-occupant bedrooms, a shared kitchen and bathrooms and common area. It’s a far cry from Abbey’s one-person trailer home, which he described in “Desert Solitaire” as “a machine for living built so efficiently and compactly there’s hardly room for a man to breathe. An iron lung it is, with windows and Venetian blinds.”
If there are any rooms still available in the fire barracks after fire personnel have been accommodated, they are open for rent to other BLM seasonal employees, interns or volunteers. There are also beds for six people at the Westwater Ranger Station, about 85 miles from town, where river rangers check permits and equipment for groups putting in to run the Westwater Canyon section of the Colorado River. Lisa Bryant, Canyon Country District spokesperson for the BLM, said the beds are usually full during the busy summer season. Bryant said that housing can be difficult for temporary employees, but the BLM makes an effort to help prospective employees find a place to live.
“The BLM is aware of the challenges in finding affordable housing in Moab,” Bryant said. “Occasionally applicants have withdrawn applications or turned down jobs following a housing search. This is less common now because the BLM helps potential job applicants and new employees in researching housing options before accepting jobs and to help them settle into our community.”
Like the employees who support the hospitality and service sectors, many temporary land management employees are essential to Moab’s tourism industry. Federal seasonal employees also perform substantial work unrelated to tourism, such as wildfire suppression, invasive plant control, and scientific research.
Economic data in 2013 showed that of the 7,143 total jobs in Grand County, more than half — 4,550 — were supported by the area’s national parks and BLM lands.
The logistical problem of housing those temporary workers is one piece of the current local housing problem. However, it is not unique to Moab or the current moment. Lathrop said it’s a problem that people have to solve everywhere.
“It’s just like any other job,” he said. “You kind of have to figure out what you’re going to eat for breakfast, you have to figure out what your mode of transportation is going to be and you have to figure out where you’re going to live.”
Current market is a challenge for seasonal federal employees
“It’s just like any other job. You kind of have to figure out what you’re going to eat for breakfast, you have to figure out what your mode of transportation is going to be and you have to figure out where you’re going to live.”