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Desert Subdivision: The paradox of naming a development after Edward Abbey

Credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Near the smooth red rock sandstone of Moab, Utah, in the Mill Creek area just southeast of the city, reddish-brown dirt has been churned up in anticipation of a new housing development.

The community is no stranger to the construction industry: Grand County, of which Moab is the county seat, has the fastest growing population in southeastern Utah, according to Census Bureau data. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted many remote workers to move to the area due to its recreational appeal and relatively affordable real estate. This, and the resulting need for more housing, was entirely predictable, but the setback caused by one particular development was somewhat less so.

The ‘Abbey Subdivision’, led by local developer Michael Bynum, was named after Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire, which chronicles the two seasons the author spent in a government trailer while working as the sole seasonal ranger at what was then Arches National Monument from 1956 to ’57. The sub-streets are named in honor of some of Abbey’s more controversial characters, such as “Hayduke Court,” named after George Hayduke, the leader of a fictional group of eco-terrorists who plant explosives at the Glen Canyon Dam in The Monkey Wrench gang. (The development also hosts a ‘Monkey Wrench Way’.) There has been no shortage of digital ink spilled, highlighting the irony of naming a development after a famous anti-development writer. Yet the debate also reinforces a core tension that many environmental writers face. When artists and activists try to communicate what is unique and worth preserving about an ecosystem, their success draws more attention to it, opening up a fragile ecosystem to even more visitation and degradation.

Andy Nettell, founder and former owner of Back of Beyond Books in Moab, said there is no doubt that Abbey’s writings, even as they argued against development and large-scale tourism, encouraged the very consequences he feared.

“There is no question that his writings ultimately had a negative impact on the land in and around Moab, just because of the sheer number of people who came because of his writings,” said Nettell, who also spent 10 years as a ranger in Arches National Parks. and Canyonlands has worked. .

Abbey was strongly opposed to the development of Arches for fear of ‘industrial tourism’. At the time, Arches was a little-visited national monument at the end of an unpaved road. (Canyonlands became a national park in 1964; Arches was not designated until 1971.) According to the National Park Service, more than 1.5 million visitors now flock to Arches each year, and the once unpaved roads see bumper-to-bumper traffic during peak season -bumper traffic. every summer. Today, Abbey’s impassioned warnings read like an understatement, given Moab’s explosion in popularity as a tourist destination and as a competitive real estate market.

“From my perspective, first as a park ranger at Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park for 10 years, I heard generations of people say the reason I’m here is because Desert Solitaire,” says Nettel. For decades, Nettell sold copies of Desert Solitaire And The Monkey Wrench Game for people from outside the city who want to connect their landscape experience with the literary memory of Abbey. While Desert Solitaire makes a powerful appeal against development that is refracted exponentially more powerfully by the fiction of The Monkey Wrench GameThe inevitable result is that even as Abbey appealed to an anti-development argument, his writing helped raise awareness of the area and attract more tourists and developers, endangering the very landscape he wanted to preserve.

In a 1976 speech at a symposium on environmental problems in Vail, Colorado, Abbey said, “I say that the industrialization of the Rocky Mountain West is not inevitable and that to plan for such a catastrophe is to invite it. Planning for growth drives growth. Planning for growth means admitting defeat before the battle is fully fought.”

“Planning for growth drives growth. Planning for growth means admitting defeat before the battle is fully fought.”

Moab is not an easy place to get to. About an hour’s drive from Interstate 70, it attracts the type of person who enjoys living in a remote location with easy access to the wilderness. But Moab attracts a lot of those types of people, which inevitably leads to a shortage of affordable housing because the area’s rugged geography often hinders development. While census data is still incomplete (it is only available through 2020 and does not accurately reflect many seasonal workers and part-time residents in Moab), the current housing crisis paints a fuller picture. According to the most recent data, the median household income for Moab is $52,000 – likely a conservative estimate because seasonal workers and people with lower incomes are likely undercounted. At the same time, the median home price is $650,000, meaning many in the workforce cannot afford housing in the communities in which they work. This results in high employee turnover, a problem known to many resort communities.

“Looking at the data, there has been an affordable housing crisis for some time now,” said Kailin Meyers, executive director of the Moab Area Community Land Trust and member of the Moab City Council, who ran on a platform that emphasized imposed on access to and affordability of housing. . Meyers said the pandemic has exacerbated the problem with the rise of remote work, creating a demographic shift in favor of second homeowners from relatively expensive housing markets such as California.

Locals like Nettells and Meyers point to the tension inherent in Abbey’s work. Communities like Moab depend on visitors for their survival: Moab’s economy is driven primarily by sales taxes and hotel room taxes. At the same time, the city understands that preserving and protecting the landscapes that attract these visitors and all that money is crucial to economic viability. The community is constantly struggling for prosperity and protection.

According to the Durango Herald, developers have responded to the request of Clarke Abbey, the writer’s widow and holder of his estate, by deciding not to name the subdivision after him. Regardless of what the final name turns out to be, the debate it sparked reveals the duality of development in the West. The text and the consequences are in conflict.

What some call irony begins to sound like prophecy when you peel back the layers of history and economics to reveal why so many people flock to the landscapes captured in Desert Solitaire. The message is intended to appeal to those who seek solitude in the vermillion soil surrounding Moab; the irony is that millions seek that solitude.

“While there are many writers who have certainly left their mark on the country, I suspect that Abbey’s work has changed an area more than any other piece of literature,” Nettell said. “I don’t know how you can connect what happened in Moab to his anti-development stance. I never came to a conclusion.”

Photo illustration sources: Edward Abbey on the Green River in 2015. Bob Munroe/CC via Flickr; Kane Creek Canyon, near Moab, Utah. Scott Ingram/CC via Flickr; A subdivision plan from 1960. Community Archive/CC via Flickr; Screenshots from a Zillow search for Moab.

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