Utah's energy towns never quite went the way of the state's ubiquitous ghost towns when uranium and petroleum markets gave out in the early 1980s, much like gold and silver mother-lodes did at the turn of the century.
But rural Utah towns such as Moab and Vernal have buckled during the past decade, when energy market crashes left miners and oil field roughnecks in the modern-day shoes of characters from John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath."Now, however, as the two communities and other boom-towns gone bust begin to see some recovery, officials and residents say their economic horizons are growing brighter and reflecting less of a dependency on energy production.
That was hardly the case 10 years ago when uranium, oil and natural gas production began to go the way of the dinosaur, sending employment figures and wage earnings plummeting in the towns' home counties (see chart on page B2).
By 1980, the price of "yellow cake," or processed uranium used as nuclear fuel, fell from $43 to $27 per pound, the slide spurred by a six-year yellow cake surplus among users, said state uranium analyst Rod Millar.
The uranium crash marked a workers' exodus from Moab's Atlas Minerals Corp., which began laying off mill workers in droves, finally closing in 1984, leaving only a handful of employed miners from a past work force of 700.
"Things got pretty bad," said Moab Mayor Tom Stocks, lamenting not only the loss of jobs but the dramatic decline in earnings his constituents saw when Atlas mine shut down.
In the Uintah Basin, where communities depended largely on oil and gas production, economic statistics looked similarly grim. The price of oil slid from $25 per barrel to $9, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Contributing to eastern Utah's demise, oil shale ventures never materialized following the dissolution of U.S. Synfuels Corp., a government agency created to boost oil shale production.
"A lot of people that came here with great expectations," said Vernal Mayor Sam Sneyder, "but they've had to leave because there's nothing here for them."
While both towns still struggle in the economic mire of their respective bust cycles, Vernal and Moab appear to be, at the very least, bottom-ing out in economic troughs, if not experiencing something of a recovery, said Ed Myer, state director of rural development.
For example, unemployment rates are declining, he said, pointing to a recently completed study of rural Utah economies. Nevertheless, some of the decline is because of unemployed workers leaving the area, Myer cautioned.
Hoping to take advantage of what could be a turning tide, officials in both communities are looking somewhat skeptically at the past, when their economies were ruled by the unnatural spirals of the boom years.
The uranium bust has changed many Moab residents' and politicians' view of what will be the economic future of Moab, said Craig Bigler, who came to Moab in the early '80s under a federal-state grant as an economic development expert. He is now a free-lance writer.
During the uranium years, the community was locked in an economy solely dependent on energy production, circumstances embraced by industry promoters but vehemently opposed by the town's radical environmentalists, Bigler said.
Nowadays, "both extremes are gone," he said, "and what we have left are people who are saying we've got to accept a different kind of future."
A coalition of one-time miners and oil and gas workers, joined by environmentalists, have begun to accept tourism as a viable accompaniment to the area's energy economy, he said.
Protecting the scenery, which attracts a half-million tourists yearly to the area, is becoming an important economic concern, Bigler said. With the demise of the uranium industry, Moab's surrounding environment, including a plethora of national parks, is the area's greatest resource.
"And we'd better not mess it up; it's all we've got now," he said.
Bigler said he believes the shift in Moab from energy to tourism is, in part, shaped by a resurgence of environmentalism in the area. Myer agreed, saying "I think that's accurate in an area with a strong environmental community."
But tourism, with its low-wage jobs, is not Moab's only salvation, Bigler said. Grand County unemployment statistics are improving, but in part because many residents are taking low-paying service jobs in the tourist sector.
Consequently, tourism should be considered one of several ways to prevent Moab from "falling back into a one-industry town" as it was during the uranium boom, Bigler said.
Government, because it provides 22 percent of Grand County jobs, will prevent Moab from becoming a one-industry town. Schools, state and federal parks and other government agencies employ nearly 2,000 in Grand County.
But it is the service industry _ health care and business services _ that is "the primary growth industry in rural Utah," Myer said. Advancements in telecommunications technology already have created jobs in Moab, Myer said, pointing to a just-opened mail-order computer repair service in Moab.
While Bigler sings the praises of a diversified Moab economy, Vernal officials make no bones about the area's dependency on the energy industry, a dependency that prohibits them from mining the tourist industry the way Moab officials hope to.
"I would say that realistically, you never are going to diversify such that the extraction of energy is not the economic cornerstone of this area," said Robert Hugie, director of Uintah County Planning.
Consequently, an upturn in the Vernal and Uintah Basin economy will most likely come not from a strong resurgence in tourism but from an upturn in the worldwide market for petroleum products, Hugie said.
"Vernal and the entire Uintah Basin are tied to the international market on energy and when that goes up, we'll go up," he said.
That won't happen until a natural resurgence in the energy market occurs or until the federal government adopts a "reasonable national energy policy, including a $10 to $15 per barrel tax on imported oil," Hugie said.
Meanwhile, the city is looking for economic alternatives other than the now-idle oil pump. Despite Vernal's dependency on energy production, tourism could play an important role in reviving the Vernal economy, as it could in Moab.
Vernal offers a great deal to attract visitors, Hugie said, pointing to Dinosaur National Monument and Flaming Gorge Reservoir - resources the community respects more than it did in the energy boom days.
"Moab is a ways ahead of Vernal in that sense, but there is a lot out here that is marketable in terms of tourism," Hugie said, admitting that the energy and environmental forces have yet to merge in Vernal as they have in Moab.
"But it takes time to make that merging," he said. "Moab has had the problem longer, I think that cohesiveness draws together when that (economic) depression keeps going on."
Moab began seeing the effects of the uranium crash as early as the late '70s. Vernal wasn't hit hardest by the collapse in the oil industry until 1984. Not until recently has tourism been given a closer look by area leaders, he said.
Manufacturing secondary products from petroleum products from the oil-rich Uintah Basin, goods like oil-based sealants and adhesives, could also provide jobs.
But in the long run, Vernal may have difficulty in diversifying to the extent necessary to give the small desert town some stability. "It's hard to diversify in a small community," said Randy Rogers, an economist for the Department of Community and Economic Development.