Amasa Back is a popular mountain biking and four-wheeling trail in Moab. Ascending through an otherworldly landscape of redrock cliffs, the trail offers amazing views of the Colorado River and the famous Dead Horse Point. The top of the climb, however, reveals a stark reminder that the Moab economy has not always depended on the hordes of recreation enthusiasts that invade the town every year. Below, what looks like a moonbase in a sci-fi movie is in fact the Intrepid Potash mine. This mine has produced potash, used in fertilizer, since 1965.
The mineral extraction and tourism industries have driven a wedge between "Old Moab" and "New Moab", according to Ken Davey, an economic development specialist for the city. Old Moab feels loyalty toward the extractive industries that brought jobs to the area in the past. New Moab is generally made-up of newcomers drawn to the area's expansive wilderness, and those who make their living in the tourism industry. "There are extremes in both camps, but most people are in the middle," says Davey.
Today, the two industries each contribute toward the economic well being of the region, but in different ways. A 2011 study by Headwaters Economics shows that tourism and recreation account for 44% of private employment in Grand County, while drilling and mining represent 3%. However, industry proponents point to higher paying jobs and $2.4 million in revenues collected by the county in 2009 from extractive industries, about 5% of total revenues.
The growing conflict between resource extraction and recreation, and the litigation that often results, led the Obama administration to put forward a new Master Leasing Plan (MLP) program in 2010. The leasing reform was partially in response to environmental activist Tim DeChristopher's fraudulent bidding on federal oil and gas leases in 2008. The program goes beyond existing Resource Management Plans, allowing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to modify drilling and mining development to minimize impacts on sensitive landscapes, wildlife, and recreation.
"We are taking a harder look at mineral development," says Brent Northrup, Moab area MLP project manager for the BLM. "We need to determine what kind of development can occur and what sorts of stipulations are needed where it does."
The Grand and San Juan Counties MLP plan is one of the largest and most complex, covering an area of close to 800,000 acres of public land. For potash mining alone, the BLM currently has 170 prospecting permit applications in the planning area.
Many New Moab business owners, such as Ashley Korenblat of Western Spirit Cycling Adventures, want to ensure that another boom in mining and drilling does not drive away the tourists that have made Moab a worldwide tourist destination.
"Let's keep the goose healthy," says Korenblat, referring to the value of tourism to the economy. "It is the random drill pads put up in random locations that are the problem. They clutter up the landscape, and people are not going to travel around the world to see an industrial site." Korenblat says she supports the MLP process because it provides the ability to defer leases in areas designated as a Recreation Focus Areas.
Interestingly, some representatives from extraction companies also believe the MLP process could be positive step. "We were curious at first about why this was required, but the BLM did a good job of explaining the inadequacy of the existing RMP," says Del Fortner of American Potash, a company currently evaluating its prospects in Grand County. "Once the MLP is complete and leasing areas are approved, it should provide some clarity and long-term predictability."
However there is also the feeling that, after already complying with the Resource Management Plan, the MLP unnecessarily forces the county to jump through another set of hoops.
"This is just a stalling action by the BLM on the part of the Department of Interior, led by [Secretary Ken] Salazar in agreement with the environmental community," says Gene Ciarus, member of the Grand County Council. "They want to stop drilling and mining and lock this up as an environmental area - turn it into Grand Canyon National Park."
A draft of the Moab Master Leasing Plan and Environmental Impact Statement is under development and is expected to be available for public comment next summer (2013).