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Moab's dilemma: Can recreation coexist with energy?

Published: Saturday, April 12 2014 4:25 p.m. MDT

John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers, stands outside Canyonlands National Park overlooking the Colorado River on March 26, 2014. He is worried that encroaching oil development and potash mining will harm the resources of the river and impair Grand County's scenic attractions.

Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News

MOAB — For more than a century the rich earth of the Moab area has been fertile ground for a harvest of opportunities.

Early settlers found a generous growing season for crops and fruit trees. In the 1950s, the earth relinquished her riches of uranium ore and with that, the northern fringes of Moab played host to the nation's second largest processing mill.

Now, people prospect for play and fun amid crimson spires and apricot-colored arches, or mine a sense of self in the solitude of the Colorado River and along the vistas and back country of southeast Utah.

At the same time, oil deposits that proved elusive to capture for nearly 100 years have been cracked open with the advent of horizontal drilling, bringing opportunity for developers and new pump jacks next to sage brush and not far from national and state parks.

In this big sandbox of red dirt — one of the world's favorite outdoor playgrounds — conflict is erupting over whose vision for this land should prevail.

It is a paradox in a land aptly named Paradox Basin, with pressure that comes from many corners.

Outdoor sports enthusiasts revel in the hiking, biking, Jeeping, river–rafting, rock climbing, photo-taking, star-gazing, horseback riding, and more.

Moab is a key player in an outdoor recreation economy that in Utah generates $856 million in state and local tax revenue, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Well more than 70 percent of the jobs in Grand County — 2,440 as of 2012 — derive from tourism.

Beyond its role as a recreation mecca, the Moab area is home to the earthly riches of potash deposits, an active copper mine and the nation's largest producing oil well in the lower 48 states. The extraction industry supports just 2 percent of the jobs in Grand County, but they are good-paying jobs county officials predict will continue to grow as the economy diversifies.

"We ask a lot of the land, so the more we can minimize the footprint and the disturbance from any one of these demands, to lessen those cumulative impacts, we should," said Lisa Bryant, assistant field manager in the Moab field office for the Bureau of Land Management.

"We need to do what we can so we can still have this in perpetuity."

"This" is Arches National Park, the Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse State Park, the Colorado River and the land that surrounds it, generating $1.8 million in 2013 in visitor spending for Grand County and drawing more than 2.5 million visitors a year.

"Moab is inviting all of these people to come here and visit because it is our livelihood," said Kent Green, owner of Cowboy Country Offroad Adventures. "And now that they're here, we've got agencies and people who want to restrict what they can do."

Green, a retired sergeant with the Grand County Sheriff's Office who ran search and rescue, said he's seen the changes come over the years, and with them the demands that are rising.

Sooner or later, he warns, something will give.

"I don't know if I will see it in my lifetime, but there is going to be a day when you will not be able to go into the back country unless you have a professional guide with you," he said. "We are going to have to be micro-managed and it saddens me."

Energy and tourism

Industry and recreation coexisted in the Moab area for decades, but the new oil find and resulting development — along with renewed interest in potash mining — are putting a strain on an already stressed and uneasy relationship.

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