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In a Utah Town, It's Goodbye Miners, Hello Mountain Bikers

By Daniel SneiderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 1, 1996



MOAB, UTAH

Two decades ago, Harvard-educated Bill Hedden chucked a career as a neurobiologist back East and settled in an almost uninhabited valley in southeast Utah. He survived through a succession of jobs - on drill rigs, building uranium mills, as a river guide, and most successfully as a furnituremaker.

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Sitting in his garden, surrounded by pink sandstone canyon walls, Mr. Hedden seems pleased to be making his life in this remote land. This decision is now being repeated all over the West as thousands of newcomers, many of them professionals, move to rural areas in search of beauty and "quality of life."

This demographic shift is transforming the economies of these areas, shifting parts of the West from mining to tourism and services. It is changing, too, the political dynamic of the region. In what some see as the emergence of a "New West," there's a growing movement here to forge a new consensus around preserving the natural environment.

Probably no place in the West captures the drama and the turbulence of this change more than Moab, a town of 7,000 people in Utah's Grand County.

With canyon vistas made famous by Hollywood westerns, Moab has become a thriving tourist center. Since the 1960s, hikers and campers have tromped through nearby Arches National Park and the Canyonlands National Park. Now, the mountain biking craze has turned Moab's trickle of tourists into a torrent.

"All of a sudden mountain biking took hold, and we had mountain bikers stacked up 10 feet deep," says Gene Nodine, a retired US Bureau of Land Management officer.

Today, tourism makes up three-quarters of Moab's employment. During the tourist season, Moab's motels and campsites are packed, and its neon-lit shopping district bulges with tourists. Up at the head of the Slickrock trail, the parking lot is jammed with cars.

These newcomers have also brought a new mindset. Down at the Star Cafe, the pony-tailed proprietor serves up tofu burgers. On the trails, few question the need to protect the wilderness. "Imagine if the canyon lands were not protected by the government," says Liz Richardson, a Colorado college student, as she pumps air into her bike tire.

That was hardly the view shared by Moab's elders in the 1980s. Then the county commission was controlled by folks like Ray Tibbetts, who proudly recalls being one of "the first Sagebrush rebels here," referring to a Western movement to put federally controlled public lands, which make up 95 percent of the county, under local control. To make their point back then, the county commissioners drove a bulldozer draped in the American flag into a wilderness area.

For Moab's old-timers, the land is a resource to be used. Settled by hearty Mormon ranchers, Moab and Grand County became a mining center in 1952, when the nation's largest deposit of uranium ore was found. The boom lasted until the mid-'60s, was revived by the energy crisis of the late '70s, and then collapsed in the '80s.

"That's when things were tough in Grand County," recalls Jimmy Walker, a lifelong miner and former county commissioner. "Mining was going down; the tax base was falling off. We had to look for other alternatives."

The move to tourism brought some fiscal relief, but it also set up a dramatic clash of cultures. "People started to move here," Hedden says, "authors, artists, people who decided they could have a life style they wanted here." Then came a small political revolution in 1992 to recall the commissioners and form a new seven-man council. Environmentalists like Hedden won a five-seat majority of the council and proceeded to kill road-building projects in wilderness areas.

"At one time, this was a strong Republican county," says former BLM manager Nodine. "Now with all the newcomers, there's more Democrats than Republicans. The whole structure has shifted."

For other Western rural communities, Moab has become a symbol of what to avoid. Economically, high-paying mining jobs have been replaced by low-wage jobs in a service economy, says Wes Curtis, a development specialist for the Utah Center for Rural Life. Housing prices have soared, and the cost of providing services has grown. But tourism does not provide sufficient tax revenues to local government.

"You can't come home anymore to Moab," says Mr. Curtis, also a public lands advocate in nearby Emery County. "Outsiders have moved in and taken over everything from business to local government. That's not what we want to see happen here."

But in Moab even old-timers such as Mr. Tibbetts accept the inevitability of change: "If we had a choice, we might not pick this. But it is the only thing we got."

People like Hedden are also working to reach an understanding with their local foes about how to manage this change. He is a powerful advocate for consensus-building, an approach that some environmentalists say leads to bad compromises.

"It's nice to think we can all sit down at the table and come to an agreement," says Ken Rait of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "But sometimes it's not realistic - there are winners or losers in this debate."

Meanwhile, even Hedden is having second thoughts about the changes wrought in his once-idyllic retreat. His empty valley is filling up, the home lights marring the view of star-filled nights.

"A lot of the fantastic solitude that you used to have in these places has gone," he laments.

*Previous articles in this series appeared on Oct. 28, 29, and 31.