Op-ed: The ‘New West’s’ big lie

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…

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