If you build it they will come. In this case the architect is Mother Nature. With the assistance of extensive marketing, in 2013 some 1,180,000 (according to Arches National Park) visited the greater Moab, UT, region.
However, questions are hotly debated about numbers of visitors, where they go and what they do. For some, only human-powered travel and recreation are acceptable. For others, everyone from hikers to motorcyclists should be allowed. For yet others, the area’s rich deposits of crude oil, natural gas and potash ought to be fair game for drilling and mining. At stake is everything from jobs and tax revenue to the preservation or degradation of some of the most stunning landscapes in the world.
Because of these and other concerns, Governor Gary Herbert of Utah in 2013 became the first governor in the country to create an Office of Outdoor Recreation specifically dedicated to promoting the outdoor recreation industry in the state.
One company heavily vested in recreation and tourism here is Moab Adventure Center (http://www.moabadventurecenter.com/). Its resources helped retain visitors in the region during the Oct. 1-16 2013 shutdown of National Parks when the US government closed for a 16-day period. While the government debacle affected private business, including Moab Adventure Center, the Center’s resources positioned in the heart of one of America’s great recreational oases precluded more than a 12 percent decline in visitors compared to the same time last year. The diversity of recreational offerings allowed some sectors of its business to show a sharp increase as people sought alternatives to recreating in the parks, with full-day rafting trips up 24 percent, backcountry Hummer safaris up 10 percent and mountain biking up 54 percent. Despite the shutdown, the company saw a 4.7 percent increase in visitors in 2013 compared to 2012.
Moab Adventure Center, at the epicenter of nature- rather than Disney-themed adventure, promises rafting, jet boating, stand up paddleboarding, hiking, mountain biking, hot air ballooning, Hummer safaris, rock climbing, canyoneering and horseback riding. Guides conduct many of these activities, an arrangement that helps preclude the kind of damage to the land that can occur when unguided and uneducated visitors venture where they shouldn’t.
Arches National Park is 4.5 miles from the Center and Canyonlands National Park 30 miles. The epicenter is Moab (population just over 5,000), county seat of Grand County, (population just over 9,000, on 3,694 square miles, of which only six percent is privately held). An historically rich area, many first-time visitors have a sense of the familiar thanks to an extensive list of films that have been shot here, including, to be released in 2014, “Transformers 4: Age of Extinction” filmed in Grand County.
“In 2000 the same kinds of things were happening as they are now, but an adventure center was a brilliant idea to put everything in one place and offer a one-stop shop,” says Marian DeLay, executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council. “The parks were still going on; there was still whitewater rafting through independent companies. I can’t tell you of a company that hasn’t succeeded here. If a company closed, it was only because of the economy. Outfitters have been fairly lucky.”
This luck translates to raising at least 76 percent of municipal and county revenues through tourism. There are some 5,700 people in the county labor force, of whom approximately 3,000 are in some way serving the tourism industry.
The region offers 3500-plus guest beds. Year-round occupancy runs between 74 and 80 percent March through November. A transient rooms tax of 4.25 percent helps accomplish a $1.6 million tourism marketing budget.
“Residents understand that in order to have tourism, we have to pay for the services,” underscored DeLay. “Infrastructure needs are always growing and will continue to grow as we grow. The city and county have done really good planning.”
However there are issues surrounding tourism and its growth.
- Are local / regional efforts to educate tourists creating good ambassadors of visitors and are they respectful and responsible guests?
- Should guests stay on the beaten track or be allowed to be free to go wherever they want? Some say that there should be a designated wilderness region in Canyonlands National Park where the public would not be allowed to visit. The Utah legislature is looking at this issue.
- Should the mostly public lands be explored for natural gas resources? Some drilling already occurs, said Brandon Lake, Moab Adventure Center spokesman. “There are always those who want more. We’re on both sides. There’s an economy to be run out there as well. Do we want something right in the middle of where we’re doing tours? A big oil rig would ruin the experience for our guests.”
Western River Expeditions is the parent company of Moab Adventure Center. Its CEO, Brian Merrill, noted that the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has a list of areas they would like to see receive wilderness designation. “This puts limits on how you can travel in these areas: no motorized vehicles; only hike or float. The more current debate is less about wilderness designation and more about the potential for the Obama administration to create a greater Canyonlands National Monument through the Antiquities Act. This would encompass a huge swath and overnight become a national monument. This is the way a lot of national parks were created, first as national monument and then into a park.”
In this area there are a variety of uses for this land: backpacking, driving jeeps, drilling for oil and mining for potash, Merrill explained. “In an effort to provide an alternative to creating a controversial national monument, Congressman Rob Bishop, chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee, has been meeting with different interest groups on a regular basis and creating a piece of legislation that would put all these questions to rest.”
How? By constituent agreement that a map would designate areas appropriate to drill for, among possible others
- Oil and natural gas
- areas for pure wilderness, even keeping mountain bikers out
- a different design for the river corridor
- and a clear definition of where people can go in a motorized vehicle.
“We’re hoping this will be a model for these kinds of decisions moving forward. It’s remarkable how diverse groups are coming to the table and playing together. I think people are catching the vision and on all sides, people understand that we do have areas that we agree on and if we all give up a little, everyone can get quite a bit of what they want,” said Merrill.