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

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

The “Abbey Subdivision,” spearheaded by local developer Michael Bynum, was named for Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire, which chronicles the two seasons the author spent in a government trailer while working as the lone seasonal ranger at what was then Arches National Monument from 1956-’57. Subdivision streets were named in honor of some of Abbey’s more controversial characters, such as “Hayduke Court,” named after George Hayduke, the ring leader of a fictional group of eco-terrorists who plant explosives on Glen Canyon Dam in The Monkey Wrench Gang. (The development is also home to a “Monkey Wrench Way.”)  No shortage of digital ink has been spilled, pointing out the irony of naming a development after a famously anti-development writer. Still, the debate also amplifies 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 very success draws more attention to it, opening a fragile ecosystem to yet more visitation and degradation.

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

When artists and activists try to communicate what is unique and worth preserving about an ecosystem, their very success draws more attention to it.

“It’s unquestionable that his writings negatively affected ultimately the land in and around Moab, just by the sheer number of people who came because of his writings,” said Nettell, who also worked for a decade as a ranger at both Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

Abbey strongly opposed the development of Arches for fear of “industrial tourism.” At the time, Arches was a little-visited national monument at the dead end of an unpaved road. (Canyonlands became a national park in 1964; Arches was not designated until 1971.) According to the National Park Service, over 1.5 million visitors now flock to Arches annually, and the once-unpaved roads boast bumper-to-bumper traffic during peak season each summer. Today, Abbey’s passionate warnings read like an understatement, given Moab’s explosion in popularity both as a tourist destination and 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 that the reason I’m here is because of Desert Solitaire,” says Nettell. For decades, Nettell sold copies of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang to out-of-towners looking to connect their landscape experience with Abbey’s literary recollection. While Desert Solitaire makes a potent appeal against development that’s exponentially more forceful refracted through the fiction of The Monkey Wrench Gang, the unavoidable consequence is that even as Abbey appealed to an anti-development argument, his writing helped publicize the area and attract more tourists and developers, threatening the very landscape he sought to preserve.

In a 1976 speech at a symposium on environmental problems in Vail, Colorado, Abbey said, “I say the industrialization of the Rocky Mountain West is not inevitable and that to plan for such a catastrophe is to invite it in all the more readily. Planning for growth encourages growth. To plan for growth is to concede defeat before the battle has been has been fully joined.”

Moab is not an easy place to get to. Approximately an hour’s drive off Interstate 70, it attracts the type of person who enjoys living in a remote location with ready access to wilderness. But Moab attracts a lot of that type of person, inevitably leading to a shortage of affordable housing, since the area’s rugged geography tends to hamper development. While census data remains incomplete — it’s only available through 2020 and doesn’t accurately account for many of Moab’s seasonal workers and part-time residents — 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, since it probably undercounts seasonal workers as well as lower-income folks. At the same time, the median home price is $650,000, meaning that many in the workforce cannot afford housing in the community they work in. This results in high employee turnover, a problem familiar to many resort communities. 

“If we look at the data, there has been an affordable housing crisis for some time,” said Kailin Meyers, executive director of the Moab Area Community Land Trust and a Moab City Council member who ran on a platform that emphasized housing access and affordability. Meyers said the pandemic compounded the issue with the rise of remote work, causing a demographic shift that favored second homeowners from comparatively expensive housing markets, such as California.

“Planning for growth encourages growth. To plan for growth is to concede defeat before the battle has been has been fully joined.”

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

According to the Durango Telegraphdevelopers have responded to the request of Clarke Abbey, the writer’s widow and holder of his estate, by deciding not to proceed with naming 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 consequences are in conflict.

What some call irony starts 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 meant to appeal to those seeking solitude in the vermillion soil around Moab; the irony is that millions are seeking that solitude.

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

High Country News is an independent magazine dedicated to coverage of the Western U.S. Subscribe, get the newsletter, and follow HCN on Facebook and Twitter.

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