Tom Clyde: Overwhelming Moab
It’s been a few years since I spent any time in Moab. I’ve driven through a couple of times, had a good bike ride on my way to somewhere else, but haven’t made that the destination for a while. I used to make several trips a year, until the trails down there became overrun with Jeeps, ATVs, motorcycles and yahoos. They recognized the problem, and a local group working with state and federal land managers got a lot of new bike-only trails built, more or less freeing up the old mining roads to the motorized use. It wasn’t a complete fix, or a complete separation of the users, but biking in Moab became fun again. The state highway department and others helped with connector trails and bike paths along the highway, including a very cool bridge over the Colorado River.
Meanwhile, the Utah travel office developed the “Mighty 5” ad campaign promoting the national parks. That’s going to be a case study for the business schools for a long time. It seems to have been the most effective promotion ever. Whether it was the ads themselves, or some cultural shift towards more active, experiential vacations instead of sitting on a beach, the result was that the national parks got overwhelmed.
On a Tuesday morning, the week before the holiday weekend, the gates to Arches were closed at 9 a.m. The people turned away went to Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point. We were road biking, and the Island in the Sky area was part of our plan. The cars lined up at the entry station for Canyonlands stretched for a mile and a half. Our group all had the (unreasonably cheap) senior passes to the national parks. We rode our bikes past the cars, flashed the pass and went in.
The entry gate mess seems fixable. For under a thousand bucks, they could buy a sun shelter and a second cash register and cut the entry delay by half. Once inside the park, trailheads were packed. The line to the restroom was so long that when you’re done, you really should just get back in line because you’ll need to go again by the time you reach the front of the line. We had a great ride. For all the crowds, the traffic wasn’t bad. We had lunch sitting on the rocks at a busy view point, soaking in the desert scenery.
We had four days of great riding. We mostly avoided the crowds, and it was amazing how many people, doing so many different things, the area can absorb during the day. It’s clear the Park Service needs a reservation system so that people don’t drive across the country to visit Arches and get turned away because the park is at capacity by sunrise. The parks are getting crushed, which isn’t good.
Capacity seems to be the issue. Hotel rooms in Moab were expensive and hard to get. We stayed in a brand new place, which was next door to another brand new place. I don’t know how many hotel rooms there are in Moab, but they were essentially sold out. The town itself is overwhelmed with people, noisy vehicles and traffic. We’re so fortunate that Park City’s Main Street isn’t a major state highway. Every business in town has a “help wanted” sign up. There aren’t enough restaurants to feed the people staying in the hotels; so they build more hotels. Nobody can round up enough employees to staff a full-service restaurant. The response is a “food truck park” downtown where one or two people in a truck can grind out burritos at lightning speed. There were long lines at every restaurant.
I talked with a local guy who, among his several jobs, is a bike guide. He lives in a little camper trailer parked on public land. He said housing is not a matter of price. It simply doesn’t exist. People commute from Monticello, Green River and Grand Junction. There is a lot of farm land left in the Moab valley. There’s room for housing, but nobody is building any. The cost of construction puts the rent too high for service industry workers to afford. So the employee base squats on public land until they get kicked off, and then move to a different spot. It doesn’t work.
Ten years ago, a friend who lives in Moab said she was terrified that Moab would become another Park City. After this visit, I’m terrified that Park City will become another Moab. The towns are quite different, but the problems are the same. The common theme is incredible recreational experiences and towns that are a bit off-kilter. Finding the right balance is difficult. Housing shortages limit other opportunities. Knowing when enough is enough, and figuring out what do to about it is the challenge facing every resort town these days. Figuring out how to be a little less successful might be the key.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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