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January/ February 2014 How the West Was Reinvented

Nudged by Bill Clinton, an economy based more on recreation than extraction is transforming the rural West.

By Ryan Cooper

Vernal, a town of about 9,000 in Uintah County, in the northeast corner of the state, has gone all-in on extractive industry, sinking oil wells by the score, and the benefits are evident in job growth and quick prosperity. Vernal has the stretched, just-unwrapped feel of new wealth. Traveling there recently, I saw streets congested with brand-new trucks, gas stations recently renovated to service large industrial equipment, and a brand-new vocational school, the Uintah Basin Applied Technology College. In this grim economy, the benefits of decent, working-class jobs should not be understated.

But the situation is not without downsides. The drillers have bid the price of unskilled labor so high that other businesses in Vernal are struggling to afford help, thereby introducing a structural distortion that will hurt the area when the oil runs out (as it must). And all the oil activity has crimped what was once a small but vibrant recreation economy. On the BLM land near Vernal, there has been “a tremendous decline in recreation activity,” says Bill Stevens, a recreation planner for the agency in Utah.

Worse, many of the drillers have no intention of staying in town. Like many workers in the extractive industry, they follow the oil from place to place. They don’t buy homes, invest in real estate, or become permanent members of a community. As evidence of the transience of the population, many locals told me that the recently built Holiday Inn in town was booked solid by Halliburton for an entire year before the construction was even complete. Vernal has already suffered two crushing oil busts, the first in the early 1980s and the second in the 2000s. Another one is coming at some point.

Moab, on the opposite side of the economic spectrum, lies a few hours south of Vernal in neighboring Grand County. It used to be a mining town, but when the local uranium industry slowly collapsed in the 1970s and ’80s the town suffered a terrible bust. For the past several decades, local agencies, businesses, and individuals have slowly restructured their economy around attracting visitors instead.

Building a reputation as a tourist hub and increasing a town’s service base is a complex, self-reinforcing process that takes years. To advertise, Moab levied a tax on hotel beds and returned half of the money to a local agency, the Moab Area Travel Council, which advertises all over the world. Their success can be measured by the visitation at nearby Arches National Park, which climbed from 236,000 in 1975 to over a million in 2012—and that’s only one of Moab’s many attractions.

Meanwhile, they deepened their service portfolio. More visitors and a longer busy season allowed the community to support a greater number and diversity of hotels and restaurants, which itself increases the attractiveness of the destination. Where there used to be a few burger joints there is now sushi and Thai food, and most restaurants stay open all year long. Where there were once a couple of bargain motels there are now luxury resorts, B&Bs, and even luxury camping (or “glamping”—glamour camping—in which camping is combined with high-end amenities like hot tubs), for hundreds of dollars per night.

Finally, Moab cultivated as many different types of recreation as possible. Aside from the classics—hiking and camping—the community now offers river rafting, rock-climbing, four-wheeling, and skydiving. Moab locals, credited for developing mountain biking back in the 1980s, have helped make the town a world-famous mecca for the now widely popular sport. Part of the result of Moab’s development is that it now caters not only to the wealthy but also to visitors in every other socioeconomic category. As a Headwaters report on Grand County put it, “One of the unusual aspects of Grand County is the wide range of recreational opportunities and activities it supports. In effect, the county’s economic diversity lies within its amenity and recreation economy.” The end result of this long process is that Moab can now boast a robust service-based economy. Jobs that require complex skills, like river rafting, pay better than baseline service jobs, like housekeeping or cashiering, and the same holds true for luxury hotels and resorts.

The upshot of all this is that Vernal is currently somewhat richer than Moab, with a per capita income about 15 percent greater. But while the extractive economy is undeniably good for a fast, easy buck, it is vulnerable to busts that can come just as quickly. The recreation economy may be less lucrative initially and much harder to establish, but it is far more stable in the long run.

This raises the question of just where this might lead in the long term. Already the Mountain West is undergoing a dramatic demographic, cultural, and political shift (ably documented in a 2012 book edited by Ruy Teixeira, America’s New Swing Region). What used to be solidly Republican territory—not one state voted Democratic in a presidential election between 1968 and 1988—now contains several of America’s few remaining swing states, and will likely contain more as the years pass. New Mexico and Colorado, once solidly red states, both went to Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. And given the growth of the Latino population, Arizona is likely to be contested soon, too.

This evolution is not completely driven by the recreation economy, of course. Bigger factors at play include the rapid growth of cities and minority populations, rising liberalism among the young, and large-scale in-migration of educated whites—though much of that migration is not unrelated to the Mountain West’s magnificent recreational opportunities. Noel Poe, who worked for the National Park Service for forty years, moved to Escalante in 2007. “I wanted to retire in redrock country,” he said. Steve Roberts, who owns Escalante Outfitters, moved for the monument, too. But the interesting point is that recreation-based communities can change the voting behavior of rural counties, which are typically the strongest of the Republican fortresses. The political consequences could be enormous. Just consider the fact that Mitt Romney won all of Utah by 48 points, but in Grand County, he barely broke 50 percent.


Old meets new: Crockett Dumas rides in front of Escalante Excursions, an outdoor outfitter, in the Pioneer Day Parade.

Eroding the last remaining Republican strongholds would be quite a development, but it could also change the ideological valence of protected lands. If rural communities across the Mountain West start leaning Democratic, Republicans might be forced to reconfigure their “drill, baby, drill” approach to all environmental policy.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper

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