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Culture clash in Moab

Tourism vs. oil and gas: Lessons from the Green River

As a benefit for the San Juan Mountains Association, we had organized a canoe trip on the Green River near Moab to paddle 60 miles from Geyser Springs to Mineral Bottom.

Colorado’s Centennial Canoe Outfitters says this is “part of the longest stretch of quiet wilderness water in the western United States.” We had plans to launch June 7. What we hadn’t planned on was the May 21 oil spill in Salt Wash that dumped 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of oil mixed with water per hour into the river from a 45-year-old well.

Welcome to the 21st century West where energy extraction in remote places is colliding head-on with outdoor recreation in those same remote locales. Moab, Utah, – famous for bumper stickers that read “New York, Paris, Moab” – has been discovered by hordes of American, European and Asian tourists. It also has been discovered, or rather rediscovered, by oil-and-gas companies, which are using fracking technology to drill deep wells.

The June 4-10 edition of the Moab Sun News proudly headlined “Tourism stats jumped in 2013.” Statistics show a geometric upward trend with 270,000 visitors to Arches National Park in 1979 and 1 million visitors in 2013 – for a fourth consecutive year of 1 million visitors.

In 2011, Headwaters Economics, in a report supported by Grand County, stated: “A significant reason for the county’s economic success stems from the diversity found today within its tourism and recreation economy. Finding ways to sustain and develop tourism and recreation that appeals to a wide mixture of visitors and residents is paramount to long-term well-being and economic resilience.”

Indeed, Moab has become a mountain bike mecca, a home for hikers, a departure point for dozens of daily raft trips on the Colorado River and a launching site for serious whitewater fanatics seeking to test their quick reflexes in Cataract Canyon. On a summer evening, tourists walk shoulder to shoulder on Main Street and vendors hawk everything from T-shirts to water bottles and even miniature sandstone sculptures of Delicate Arch.

“Moab went fishing for tourism and caught a shark,” laments Jim Stiles publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr, which is now appears online. Stiles moved out of Moab.

As well, the old local families who felt comfortable with jeans, work boots and yellowcake dust in their hair have looked askance at the legions of Lycra-clad cyclists who ride the same trails that surplus World War II jeeps pioneered during the uranium boom of the 1950s. Those families have not wanted jobs in the tourist sector. Now, instead of Subarus and SUVs with bike racks, the new vehicles in town are diesel pickups with Oklahoma and Texas license plates with arc welders in the back.

“Just like everybody else in America, Moab is polarized. We need oil and gas, but why here?” says Jesse Marshall who owns Coyote Shuttle. “And then when the spill occurred, for conservationists it was horrible. A wake-up call. Within a day and a half an oil sheen hit Lake Powell. Every time you turn around, there’s a new well going in. It’s amazing, truly amazing.”

A recent town meeting in Moab brought dozens of interested and vocal residents to comment on the new oil-and-gas boom. Not all comments remained civil. Letters to the Bureau of Land Management ran strongly against increased oil-and-gas development. As Moab’s tourism industry has mushroomed in the last two decades so have the businesses supporting tourists. Those business owners do not want wellheads adjacent to trailheads. Fears grow about irreconcilable differences between a booming year-round tourist economy and oil-and-gas exploration using the same good weather and easy road access.

A tiny oil boom occurred near Moab in the early 1900s. Wildcatters returned in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Then Moab placed its bets on the winning card of tourism. Now, the oil companies are back leasing motels for their workers.

As Marshall explains, “This boom is bigger than ever because of the new drilling technology. There’s so much oil and gas here.” But, he cautions, “In Moab the biggest industry is tourism. To have this beautiful country changed by stinky air and polluted water for the sake of a few hundred jobs – it’s just not right.”

Workers will drill new wells. The old well that blew out May 21 was contained by May 22, then heavy rains flooded the site and more water and oil spilled into the Green River. The BLM is in the process of reviewing leasing areas in its Moab Master Leasing Plan. Both old and new wells need to be taken into account and safety procedures mandated.

“The Green River’s Labyrinth Canyon is world-renowned for its scenic beauty and its outstanding river recreation opportunities for visitors and local families and businesses alike,” said Liz Thomas, attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in the Moab Sun News.

She’s right. We were there to canoe Labyrinth, and we hiked into Trin Alcove, lazily drifted around the Bowknot Bend and camped in Horseshoe Canyon on Barrier Creek. To canoe this quiet stretch of the Green River with San Juan Mountains Association, we had folks come from Colorado Springs; Norman, Oklahoma; and Olympia, Washington. Locals included Durangoans M.K. Thompson, Mary “Jeff” Karraker, Marie Roessler, canoe guide Randy Hertzman and Chris and Lou Burkett from Dolores.

We also saw the remains of a previous energy boom.

Because of high water and the Green running at 20,000 cubic feet per second, we waded through the willows and tamarisk to camp near an abandoned uranium mine. What did that energy boom leave in the Green River corridor at the Hey Joe Mine? A loading station for uranium ore, a rusted Allis Chalmers bulldozer and scattered industrial artifacts such as oil drums, compressors, truck cabs and stoves, all ventilated with bullet holes.

We saw no oil sheen. We heard delightful birdsongs in the morning, discovered 800-year-old Fremont era rock art and even spied a prehistoric stacked stone lookout high on a narrow cliff ledge. During a five-day float, we saw only one other boating party so we had time among ourselves to talk, laugh, sing and wish the beer were colder.

“The river flowed high and the bugs laid low,” said naturalist M.K. Thompson for the SJMA. “With each day, our group became more closely knit. Clocks lost all meaning as we followed the rhythm provided by the sun and moon. By the end, I wished we could all just go back to the start ... except that the cedar gnats were beginning to buzz.”

On our last day during a silent morning float, we detected the faint buzz of mosquitoes, not yet ready to sting, so our timing had been perfect. We had missed the June hatch.

We unloaded our gear, had lunch and took the shuttle up the winding dirt road from Mineral Bottom. We’d had five glorious days without cellphones or computers or news. On the way into town as the road changed from gravel to pavement, we passed the entrance to Island in the Sky, one of the most famous vistas in all of Canyonlands.

A new gas well stood near the turn off. Another drilling rig was just going up.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.

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