At Big Bend, upstream from Arches National Park, the Colorado River makes a long, graceful arc within its deep sandstone canyon and U-128, the two-lane highway tagging along, does the same.

If, when driving, boating or biking "downstream," you consulted a compass here, you might be startled to discover that while you thought you were trending south-by-southwest toward Moab, you are actually aimed more at Grand Junction somewhere to the north and east. Your sense of direction temporarily boggled, you could be forgiven for briefly wondering:Where is the Colorado River really headed?

Which is just what residents of Moab and Grand County at large would like to know about this beautiful and unusually accessible stretch of canyon. There's nothing else quite like it in Utah, and sudden and significant change - in the form of new commercial development - seems to be in store for the river's rare parcels of private property.

The issue is the hottest topic in town.

"There's quite a bit of controversy over whether I should do this or not," admitted Colin Fryer, who hopes to build a resort convention center beside the river. He says it will be "a high-bred sort of cowboy ranch and winery."

Fryer and Robbie Levin own pastoral ranches in what is called the Professor Valley. Levin, a member of the Grand County Planning Commission, also wants to construct a multi-unit lodge just a few miles away. The two already have large homes on their spreads. In addition, farther upstream near the old Dewey Bridge, Canyonlands Realty has graded above the shoreline and is selling 20 remote homesites at "Rio Colorado at Dewey."

The proposals have stirred up people and opinions.

"I just feel that this valley through here is unique and so beautiful that it should be preserved as much as possible in its original state, or free from (any more) development than has already taken place," said John Hauer, who owns property near Levin and Fryer's.

On the other hand, "Only 5 percent of the county is in private hands - and only about 2 percent of the river corridor," if that, noted D.L. Taylor, a nearby rancher and chairman of the planning commission. Grand County is largely federal territory, administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the National Park Service. "So we feel there ought to be reasonable uses of that small percentage that's private," Taylor said.

"Reasonable" is an interesting word, for neither side wants to be painted with a broad stroke as property rights or environmental extremists. At least, most of them don't. But heated, sometimes hurtful words have been exchanged in public and County Council meetings this month.

Last Monday the council voted 6-1 against putting a moratorium on development. The subject came up because the county is devising "corridor area plans" for the U-128 River Road and traffic-heavy U.S. 191 between Moab and I-70's Crescent Junction. This week the planning process continues with public "visioning workshops" Monday and Tuesday in Moab.

The county's two-year-old general master plan deals mainly with growth in the Spanish Valley, the urban/suburban site of Moab, said Mary Hofhine, Grand County development coordinator. The planning commission and County Council decided in January that U.S. 191, the River Road and other highway corridors need more specific attention. Consultant Richard H. Grice of Four Corners Planning Inc. was hired last spring to come up with the first two area plans and a county land-use code.

The process, Hofhine said, has invited public participation - and venting.

"I think for the most part people love the wide open spaces and the agricultural lands," she said. "People are saying, `Let's develop in an orderly way.' "

`Reasonable' reasoning

Members of the ad hoc citizen group Friends of the Colorado River Corridor and other opponents and critics want Grand County - the public, planners and elected officials - to take a big breath and think about the consequences of development along the Colorado River. And possibly to limit it.

They think that's reasonable.

"This is a scenic corridor," emphasized Don Oblak, owner of a river-running and boat-rental company and one of the Friends. Much photographed and featured in movies from John Wayne's "Rio Grande" to Robert Duvall's "Geronimo," "it is the American West - and unfortunately that will change" if too many big plans are carried out, he said.

Levin and Fryer, whose proposed developments are closest to Moab and even nearer to the small community of Castle Valley, have incorporated into their concepts large tracts of agricultural open space - picturesque alfalfa fields, trees and vineyards - and say they intend to build their riverside lodgings in clusters to complement the scenery while allowing guests to comfortably enjoy the setting.

"This is my dream, my passion," said Fryer, a Salt Lake businessman who bought the old White property 14 miles up the River Road and renamed it Red Cliffs Ranch. He wants to build a resort in possibly two 50-unit phases, including a central lodge, restaurant, winery and conference center.

Levin has turned his 160-acre Sorrel River Ranch - the old Sterns and Boulden farmstead - into a showplace on a curve of U-128, doubling the alfalfa fields and constructing a few homes, outbuildings and employee quarters with materials that evoke the past or blend into the landscape.

"It's a little oasis," said Levin, a Californian who lived in Park City for several years.

Originally Levin planned to subdivide most of the property for houses. He and his wife Hope, who raises and shows horses competitively, already run a small bed and breakfast there and now would like to build a 76-unit resort on the river, mostly in a series of fourplexes. Their large existing house would become the lodge and they would build another home elsewhere on the ranch. The alfalfa fields would apparently remain as they are.

Levin and Fryer consider themselves forward-thinking businessmen and property owners and believe their conceptions to be enlightened.

In other words, reasonable.

Blessing and bane

A portion of this 30-mile section of the river from U.S. 191 north of Moab to the Dewey Bridge is called "the Daily" because most people, including commercial river-runners and vacationers on boating, biking or sightseeing trips, use it for just a day, said Karen Nelson, a member of Friends of the Colorado River Corridor.

The recreationists include tourists from throughout the United States and overseas, particularly Europe, as well as the locals from in and around Moab and Castle Valley who've found it a great playground - a place "to get out and relax and get away from town and their houses," Nelson said.

"We've been spoiled by a unique situation, which is a major river like this that is very accessible to the community and to visitors to come and enjoy so close to town," she said.

That convenience has been both the river's blessing and its bane.

Camping was primitive and river-running less impactful until the mid-1980s. Then littering, human waste problems and damage to the roadside and riverside landscape multiplied as Moab was discovered in even greater numbers by those who love hiking, biking and the outdoors in slick-rock country.

"It is also the most popular river section in Utah for boating," said Russ von Koch, an outdoor recreation planner with the BLM's Moab office. The number of "river days" - the headcount of people using this part of the Colorado - doubled over the past decade to 56,000 last year, he said.

Then Grand County established a blue-ribbon committee to take a look at the problems, said von Koch. "They wanted to provide facilities and maintain the attractiveness of the area for visitors and residents alike," he said. "That group made a set of recommendations that we're still largely following today."

The BLM calls the strip the Colorado Riverway. Upstream toward Dewey and downstream toward Potash (the latter along the Kane Creek Road and U-279), the agency has established 168 individual fee campsites as well as seven reservable group sites at the Big Bend Recreation Area and other locations, von Koch said.

"Some people would say, `Oh, we used to come here and it was free,' " he said. "But now we talk to them and they have toilets and their own sites. Most have been pleased with the developments and say it's long overdue. And they understand that the money is coming back into there."

Economic realities?

Not all vacationers are served by campgrounds and the commercial river runners. Fryer said he'd like to tap into a few other segments - and many folks in economically tenuous Moab, wounded by declines in mining and agriculture, are urging him on.

Fryer sees his Red Cliffs Ranch restaurant and convention center as something Moab really needs - an amenity that would help it challenge upscale places like Aspen, Colo., and Sedona, Ariz. Workshops and company retreats could be held there; filmmakers putting the scenery to good use would have a place to huddle outside of town.

The quashed moratorium would have hurt his plans. Fryer wants to begin construction in February and open his doors by 2001.

"Part of my urgency is a little thing called the Olympics coming up," he said. Southern Utah should be involved and will surely benefit from all the publicity. And, he said, "I need a year to work out the bugs."

Fryer has owned the 177-acre ranch for nine years - and he is indeed a rancher, running cows in the nearby mountains. But the economics of grazing in the West today are working against him.

"When I sold my first calf crop six years ago, I got $1 a pound for them," he said. "This year's crop is better - and I'm going to be selling for 65 to 68 cents a pound." NAFTA and more efficient cattle-raising in other, better-watered states are partly to blame. "It's also supply and demand: We're able to produce more than the American people can eat."

But it also means Western ranchers, working in a hard country, need to find ways to supplement their incomes. In the Moab area that sometimes means hosting outdoor adventurers or filmmaking projects - or tapping into the value of the land they own. Letting fields just sit there looking pretty growing alfalfa doesn't work. Fryer envisions "a working guest ranch."

His contribution to the county coffers would leap as well. The $200 property tax bill for his agricultural land would probably jump to $20,000-$30,000, Fryer said. He'd pay another $100,000 in sales and travel taxes and create at least 40 jobs.

Levin, a former rock musician who became a successful clothing manufacturer, bought his ranch after living for a few years in Park City. The elegant spread currently has an equestrian feel about it, due in part to a fine barn and other rustic structures.

Some of his critics are leery of revisions Levin has made in his proposals: shifting from house lots to resort structures, the close density of those buildings proposed along the river and a perceived lack of action in setting aside roadside fields under a conservation easement as promised.

His "planned unit development," as it is called, "kept changing - and changing and changing," said Oblak. And, he added, at one point Levin had the property up for sale.

He did consider selling the ranch, Levin said, but that was before he and his wife decided to build a resort.

Ultimately, Fryer and Levin do not see their developments contributing seriously to congestion along narrow U-128 or in the canyon.

"The river runners put tens of thousands down the river," Fryer said. "They use the river harder than I would ever use it."

Citing figures from the BLM, Levin said almost 390,000 people - rafters, campers and motorists - used the canyon in 1997. Actual use by local residents was negligible, perhaps 3 to 5 percent of that. Tourists account for almost all of it, "and that's going to increase," he said.

Levin believes the planning process has been done with forethought and expertise. Said Fryer, "People are asserting that there's no planning, and nothing could be further from the truth."

The golden egg

The Colorado Riverway debate isn't always as impersonal or as cordial as a newspaper article might lead a reader to think.

Natives and newcomers seem often to split down factional lines. There is talk of "trophy houses" for the wealthy and obstructionism by "nimbys" - derived from the phrase "not in my back yard" - people who've moved into the area and want to minutely watchdog tourist, filmmaking and construction activity. Sometimes the conflicts are seen as the washed vs.

Karen Nelson is frustrated by the categorizing. She designs and builds furniture as a home-based business and has lived in the area for more than a decade. "I pay taxes and want to live here all my life," Nelson said. She doesn't want her concerns dismissed out of hand, as she felt was the message conveyed by one County Council member's comments about last Monday's moratorium discussion being "a waste of time."

Critics of the projects don't believe public airing of the issues is a waste of time.

Hauer has set aside a chunk of his riverside land under a conservation easement managed by the Nature Conservancy, which also owns the Mayberry orchards nearby. He objects to the Sorrel River Ranch development, Hauer said, because he believes Levin has failed to live up to similar easement promises made to the Planning Commission. "And I believe it would be far too visible from both the river and the highway," he said.

The Red Cliffs Ranch proposal has been handled more straightforwardly, Hauer said, "and would not be nearly as visually obtrusive."

David Early of Castle Valley, also a member of the Friends of the Colorado River Corridor, believes U-128 is a dangerous road and will only get worse as vehicles surge into the area and more people make the canyon and Castle Valley a place in which to lodge or live.

Don Oblak is worried that even now the public doesn't have a clear idea of what the property owners might ultimately intend. It is entirely possible, he said, that one of these ranches could be sold to other developers down the line.

"We're not sure what we might end up with," Oblak said.

"All we're trying to do is to get them to put some meaningful stipulations on these projects," Early said.

The Colorado Riverway, he added, is a treasure, the subject of road atlas covers, a star of TV commercials.

Nelson would agree. Someone, she said, pointed out that undermining the scenery there - pushing people farther and farther away from Moab for recreation or solitude - might be like killing "the goose that laid the golden egg."

It is Oblak who raises the question of politics.

"I hope people see that their voices aren't being heard and that in the upcoming November election they'll vote their conscience," he said. "You have to be involved in your community."

And somewhat lost in all the controversy over the U-128 area plan is the future of the 30-mile stretch of U.S. 191 north of Moab, gateway to Canyonlands and Arches national parks and Dead Horse Point State Park.