New to the Bears Ears saga? Read the August 2016 feature by Rebecca Robinson and Stephen Strom on the people and politics behind the monument creation and opposition, as well as their recent Letter to America.
Before his contract was terminated by the San Juan County Commission in March, Charlie DeLorme was more than the county’s economic development director: he was its international ambassador, traveling to trade shows in Europe and Asia to promote southeast Utah’s natural beauty and rich cultural history.
Under his watch, the county’s hospitality industry flourished. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of hotel rooms in the county increased by 30 percent, the tax revenue generated from hotel stays more than quadrupled, and 300 new jobs in tourism-related businesses were added. For a county with just under 17,000 people, these numbers are noteworthy.
Yet when we spoke with him in late January of this year, when he was still on the county payroll, he told us that the current county commissioners were wary of making tourism a central element in a plan for a sustainable economic future. Their skepticism resulted in placing a moratorium on travel for promoting tourism in the county.
“[Tourism jobs are] frequently referenced by our commissioners and naysayers about the industry as minimum-wage jobs with little value. Well, they’re not minimum wage,” DeLorme said. “It’s hard to find a tourism job that pays less than $14 an hour in San Juan County.” Current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour in both the U.S. and Utah.
Surprisingly, however, DeLorme did not support the designation of Bears Ears National Monument. Like many monument opponents within and outside the county, he fears increased visitation without adequate funding for monument staff and infrastructure will lead to irreparable damage of cultural resources and the landscape he cherishes. Yet his primary focus has always been on generating revenue for the county, and once the monument designation was official, he began working with the state tourism office on a campaign to market Bears Ears to an international audience.
“We have a marketing plan that we’ve already launched with the travel-trade [industry] internationally to say now we have four national monuments in San Juan County: Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge, and Bears Ears,” DeLorme said in January. “And we see [Bears Ears] as another arrow in our marketing quiver.”
“A bigger and bigger part of the fabric of the Utah state economy is the outdoor industry,” said Ashley Korenblat, the owner of Moab-based Western Spirit Cycling and executive director of the nonprofit Public Land Solutions. “Even if you are all in on resource extraction and you don’t ever go outside, [tourism and recreation] is a big piece of the economy that you can no longer brush under the rug.”
In a 2015 report recommending an economic development strategy for San Juan County, the Ogden, Utah-based consulting firm Better City noted that efforts to increase tourism could be an essential complement to newer industries like light manufacturing, healthcare, and IT, along with legacy industries–oil and gas, mining, and ranching. The report encouraged county leaders to focus on enticing more visitors to stay overnight and spend their money in San Juan County’s communities instead of simply passing through.
Jared Berrett, founder and owner of Blanding-based Four Corners Adventures, aims to do just that. He serves a mix of seasoned wilderness explorers who want to rent outdoor equipment to outfit their own adventures and less experienced tourists who prefer to experience the backcountry with the help of an expert guide. Berrett and his all-local staff fill that niche, taking clients into the canyon’s wild places on foot, by boat, or in a Jeep or ATV. They have received rave reviews from customers for their tours, whether on well-trod trails or deep in the backcountry.
But attracting those visitors has proved challenging, due in part to San Juan County’s relative isolation. Unlike Moab, which is served by commuter flight service and lies just 30 miles from Interstate 70, Blanding lies more than 100 miles from a major interstate and lacks regular air service. Moreover, the county’s ambivalent attitudes toward tourism make sustaining Berrett’s enterprise even more of a challenge. He decided years ago that he did not want to attract the Moab throngs of adrenaline junkies, but instead prefers smaller groups of more contemplative adventurers.
“The number one reason” tourists choose to stay and spend in Moab instead of San Juan County, Berrett said, “is no alcohol. You can’t sit down and have a glass of wine.”
Under the direction of award-winning state tourism director Vicki Varela, tourism spending in Utah hit a record of $8.17 billion in 2015. Varela helped design and launch a “rourism” program that provides resources and strategic guidance to rural communities seeking to expand their tourist economy. She said that in guiding efforts to establish tourist-friendly policies “one of the key things . . . is that you’ve got to have a restaurant open until 10 o’clock at night. And you’ve got to have a place for people to shop. And one of the big issues . . . in rural communities is that all shops close at 6 o’clock. Well, that’s just about the time tourists are coming back from their adventures and are ready to spend some money.”
Even San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, despite being one of the most vocal Bears Ears National Monument opponents, acknowledged the economic benefits tourism could bring to his constituents.
“If I’m [thinking selfishly], I’m an accountant. I don’t do books for Exxon Mobil and Dennison Mines, I do books for hotel owners and restaurant owners and guides and people who are tied into the tourism thing,” Lyman told us last year. “If we want a local economy, [we] don’t get that by big oil coming in. They bring a lot of money to the county, and it’s helped pay for the schools and I don’t diminish it at all. But being able to go out and open up a business . . . as much as I don’t want [the monument] to happen, you have to say, if it does, we’ll maybe be better off.”
Yet all three commissioners decided that DeLorme’s aggressive promotion of San Juan County to prospective tourists was not aligned with their vision. Consequently, they recently began a nationwide search for a new economic development director.
“Having our tourism director be a dual director for economic development and tourism . . . we don’t think that’s worked well,” San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said. The commissioners would prefer someone overseeing economic development to design a strategy that places a greater emphasis on extractive industries.
The county is the poorest in the state, and revenues from extractive industries and ranching are declining while the infrastructure needs are significant. The toxic mix of strong emotions and deep uncertainty make progress on an inclusive and sustainable economic development plan problematic at best. Will leaders find a way to put politics aside and rise to the challenge?
Next in the Series: The tourism conversation continues, featuring perspectives from locals in San Juan County, Utah’s office of tourism, leaders in the recreation and conservation communities, and Native-led groups.
Rebecca Robinson is a Portland, Oregon-based writer. She has written for numerous print and online news outlets about crime, education, health care, social entrepreneurs, California’s prisons, state and federal medical marijuana laws, and homelessness, among other topics. She began her work on the manuscript for Views from the Colorado Plateau at the 2015 Fishtrap Summer Gathering of Writers. Currently a freelancer, Rebecca previously worked as a staff writer for Monterey County Weekly and a radio producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Stephen Strom spent 45 years as a research astronomer after receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in astronomy from Harvard. He began photographing in 1978, after studying the history of photography and silver and non-silver photography at the University of Arizona. His work has been exhibited widely throughout the U.S. and is held in several permanent collections, including the Center for Creative Photography and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His photography complements poems and essays in three books published by the University of Arizona Press–Secrets from the Center of the World, Sonoita Plain, and Tseyi / Deep in the Rock—and Otero Mesa (University of New Mexico Press, 2008). A monograph, Earth Forms, was published in 2009 by Dewi Lewis Publishing.
Header photo of petroglyph panel by Stephen Strom. Photo of Rebecca Robinson by Peter Crabtree. Photo of Stephen Strom courtesy Stephen Strom.