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Op-ed: The 'New West's' big lie

A view of Moab on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016.
A view of Moab on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

In 1998, environmentalists from across the country gathered in Arizona for a "Wilderness Mentoring Conference" to consider new strategies. One prominently displayed quote established the meeting's tone and direction:

“Car companies and makers of sports drinks use wilderness to sell their products. We have to market wilderness as a product people want to have.”

It was a seminal moment. Subsequently, mainstream environmentalists formed lucrative alliances with the outdoor recreation industry. It was a perfect fit. Marketing the "New West" was born.

Now, two decades later, small communities like Moab are exploding from their "industrial tourism" successes and excesses. Devastated by low-wage jobs, exorbitant housing and chaotic growth, there is no relief in sight.

Yet transforming the rural West into more Moabs is a daily mantra for environmentalists. They believe it's the best way to "save" it. Just ask the outdoor industry.

Luther Probst, the Outdoor Industry Alliance's board chairman, recently proclaimed, "The evidence is overwhelming that monuments and other protected public land actually contribute to the prosperity of rural communities."

The OIA boasts that the recreation economy generates $646 billion in consumer spending and creates 6.1 million jobs. Environmental groups fervently embrace such factoids and spend more time praising the economic potential from monuments and parks than the reasons wilderness is important in the first place.

Their unbridled enthusiasm is also the New West's Big Lie.

While the recreation industry and environmental groups grind out daily reports on the financial benefits of an industrial tourism economy, it's a deceptive claim — just who specifically prospers in the New West?

These recently urbanized rural economies were rarely intended to benefit the citizens whose families founded small Western towns more than a century ago. Or the Native Americans who came before them. For the New West, it's not a matter of helping rural communities. It's about replacing them.

The recent Bears Ears issue has intensified the debate. No one has been more candid about eliminating the rural economy than Mark Bailey, a former Salt Lake City investments adviser, now relocated to Torrey Utah, and a board member of the Wild Utah Project. He wrote recently:

“I have a vision of Torrey becoming an example of rural renewal and progress, where the flora and fauna are left unmolested by domestic livestock, water runs free in the streams, the rocks are not mined and crushed for road base and the forests are not clear cut but the community thrives all the same. … There exists the infrastructure to support gatherings and targeted conventions for think tanks, conservationists, literary and arts gatherings."

For those people whose families have lived there for a century or more, Bailey suggests they leave home, get an education, then "work to build intellectual capital." It might take years. The fact is, most "Old Westerners" do not have the money, the time or the expertise to transfer their entire lives into a recreation economy. When New West boosters praise their own economic accomplishments, few are expecting to share that success with their Old West adversaries. The transformation of the American rural West is really a hostile takeover.

In fact, most urban proponents ooze loathing for the rural population and repeatedly dismiss them as ignorant, racist rubes. But the New West ignores the fact that their "solution" establishes a culture and economy that excludes everyone — of any race — who lack the affluence and wealth to participate in it.

It creates a New West feudal system of "haves" and "have nots."

And what happens to the millions of rural Americans who founded these communities decades or centuries ago? Anglos and Native Americans alike? We hear they're hiring ticket punchers at the local zipline/gift shop.

Jim Stiles is the founding publisher of The Canyon Country Zephyr and the author of "Brave New West."