Traveling through the Beehive State recently, I was struck by two completely different stories emerging from Utah. On one weekend, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman led a group of angry protesters—many of them armed—on an illegal ATV ride through Recapture Canyon, the site of 1,000-year-old Ancestral Puebloan dwellings that some archaeologists have likened to a “mini Mesa Verde.”
As the small group of riders attempted to exploit the spirit of the Old West to its advantage, they grabbed more than their fair share of media attention. They certainly don’t represent the larger community of responsible all-terrain vehicle riders. But with rancher Cliven Bundy’s son, Ryan, on hand, plenty of the reporting wove the Recapture story into the larger “movement” drama that opened a few weeks ago with the attempted cattle roundup on BLM land in Nevada.
I think the real story coming out of Utah began much earlier, 300 miles to the north in Salt Lake City. On May 8, Gov. Gary R. Herbert hosted the state’s inaugural Outdoor Recreation Summit, an event whose focus is simple: “to explore and share new ways to responsibly grow, promote and enhance Utah’s flourishing recreation economy.”
I was there on behalf of mountain bikers, hikers, backcountry skiers, rock climbers, paddlers and the other outdoor recreation enthusiasts that the Outdoor Alliance works for, to promote both conservation and access to the public lands. There were folks from across the public-private spectrum: outdoor manufacturers and retailers, user groups, sportsmen, state and federal land managers, county commissioners and more. We all came together in the spirit of collaboration, and in pursuit of a bright and balanced future for economic development, recreation and conservation in Utah.
The summit itself was as much about planning for the future as it was a celebration of the fact that a collaborative approach is already paying dividends. The Outdoor Industry Association calculates that outdoor recreation generates $12 billion in consumer spending and 122,000 jobs for Utah’s economy annually. And Utahns are working it.
They deploy savvy marketing to bring skiers to the “Greatest Snow on Earth” and all sorts of hikers, campers and sightseers to “The Mighty Five” national parks in southern Utah’s red rock country (Bryce, Zion, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands), as well as to the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, which enjoys more yearly visitors than all five national parks combined. Utah is investing in outdoor recreation. And people are investing in Utah.
This is a story that is playing out across the West, where state governments and the business community are turning their attention to the multiple economic benefits that come with a strong foundation of high-quality outdoor recreation. The Idaho Outdoor Business Council has coalesced to provide “a strong voice on behalf of sustainable recreation and of the benefits of healthy lands and waters to Idaho’s important outdoor recreation economy.” In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee has commissioned a blue-ribbon task force to help him grow the outdoor recreation economy.
In a recent poll of Montana business owners conducted by the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, 70 percent of those responding agreed that “the Montana outdoor lifestyle” was a factor in their decision to locate or expand their business in Montana. This topped the list of factors, outranking tax rates, access to raw materials, utility costs, quality health care, access to high speed Internet and airline service.
And in Arizona, the Sonoran Institute conducted qualitative research with hiring managers and employees from some of the state’s leading companies. Its findings indicate that outdoor recreation on protected public lands plays a key role in recruiting the highly skilled workers needed to drive Arizona’s knowledge economy forward.
So while the Cliven Bundy and Phil Lyman soap operas make convenient fodder for hungry news cycles, they do not accurately represent the West. Those of us who live, work and play out here know the real story. It is one focused on common ground, not conflict. It’s a story that honors the past, but drives toward the future. And it has the confidence and creativity to balance economic development, recreation and conservation with the challenges and demands brought on by growth and change in today’s American West.
Tom Flynn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the western regional director of the Washington, D.C.-based Outdoor Alliance. He lives in Boise, Idaho.