Riding Into the Future, but on What Kind of Wheels?
By KIRK JOHNSON
Carson City had silver. San Francisco boomed with gold. Here it was all about uranium. For more than three decades after World War II, as the nation built its arsenal of cold war weapons and nuclear energy plants, the richly radioactive deposits that snake through southeast Utah made tiny Moab the nation's Geiger counter capital.
At its height, there were 40 to 50 publicly traded uranium companies listed in the Utah newspapers, and most of them were here. The town had its own stock exchange. Deals unfolded over lunch at places like the Golden Steak. Then the accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 stalled the nuclear industry, and the Soviet Union fell, and Moab's go-go uranium economy was gone.
Now uranium is stirring again in the West. Two mines reopened last year in Colorado - and five more could reopen this year - prompted by a surge in prices and demand around the world, and the anticipation that new nuclear power plants might be built in the United States.
But Moab will not be reaching for its old crown, people here say. Unlike many other towns in the uranium belt that faded into the desert as the mills and mines closed, Moab moved on economically and has thrived as a tourist destination for visitors to nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. What grips Moab now is not the question of mines versus tourism, but exactly what kind of tourism to embrace.
The geology beneath Moab's soil may be the same, but the town's identity is not. The economic revival in the 1980's was led by young people, particularly health-conscious mountain bikers who discovered the area's back roads and sandstone trails. Coffee bars, bike shops and back-country tour operators now dominate a Main Street that once catered to the humbler needs of prospectors.
Nostalgia for days past has also been tempered by the huge mountain of mine waste that has moldered on the edge of town for decades. A long investigation into the environmental consequences of the mining, and a battle to have the tailings removed by the government, gave Moab a deeper and in some ways darker sense of its history, people say.
"This cleanup says a lot about what we think," said the mayor, David L. Sakrison, who arrived here 1972 as a footloose hitchhiker bound for South America and decided to stay. Mr. Sakrison said he still remembered how the wind would whip across the pile, then unprotected and barely monitored, blow dust through the streets. "You could taste the metal in your mouth," he said.
For one thing, the battle over the pile forced leaders like Mr. Sakrison to think beyond their own backyard.
In seeking support for a cleanup, Moab and its allies argued that the government should move the tailings not for Moab's sake, but for the Colorado River's. The drinking water and irrigation supplies for millions of people in Arizona and California could be contaminated, supporters of the cleanup said, if a flood someday washed the tailings into the river, which runs past the town.
The argument, aided by a series of articles about the tailings pile in The San Diego Union-Tribune by a reporter who grew up in Moab, was decisive, environmentalists say. The Department of Energy said this month that it would move the Moab mine tailings pile to a safer spot of entombment about 30 miles away.
The debate about Moab's future, meanwhile, goes on, though it is again a question of how the land should, or should not, be used.
Some business owners say the town should pursue more business from all-terrain vehicle owners and other off-road drivers, who have been visiting in increasing numbers and seem to spend more than mountain bikers or hikers. Others worry that the mountain-bike crowd might be chased away if the town becomes too closely identified with the "motorheads," as many people here call the gas-burning backcountry contingent, and that too many heavy-tread tires in the backcountry could devastate the landscape for everyone.
After the annual Jeep Safari week last month, which drew about 5,000 four-wheel-drive vehicles to Moab, a town with only a 5,000 year-round residents, the acrimony on both sides was thick.
One Colorado resident sent an e-mail message to the Chamber of Commerce saying he loved Moab but was so offended by the Safari that he would never return. At least one four-wheeler wrote that he was fed up, too. He said he thought that off-road drivers were looked down upon and hassled by the police.
A petition was put up around the same time, signed by many Moab business owners, in favor of closing many trails to off-road vehicles. The trails, the signers said, were becoming "a spider web of roads through some of our wildest and most sensitive landscapes."
Jason Taylor did not sign.
"I make my living with motors, so I hope it's not an effort to close us out," said Mr. Taylor, the general manager of Moab Adventure Center, which does Hummer tours and Jeep rentals. "I'll fight to the end."
Longtime residents say the impact on the land from uranium mining - the mill finally closed in 1984 - was unquestionably severe and substantial in spots around Moab. But the land back then, despite the pawing of the miners, was still fairly wild and mostly empty.
"There just weren't that many people," said Lloyd M. Pierson, a retired National Park Service ranger who came to Moab in the 1950's, when the writer Edward Abbey had also just arrived to work as a seasonal ranger, a job Mr. Abbey later wrote about in his books about the Southwest.
"Now people are literally all over the place," Mr. Pierson said. "Some of the things they've done to the land are appalling."
People like Jeremy Parriott are among those looking for Moab's new point of balance.
Mr. Parriott and his friends bought 320 acres here last year to play on with their all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles, and then in a fit of anticommercial largess, invited the rest of the world to come out and ride as well, free, no questions asked.
"I don't want the headache of trying to make it a profitable business," said Mr. Parriott, 32, whose shaved head and big grin make him look like the actor Patrick Stewart.
Mr. Parriott posted a box by the gate for donations, with a request that people haul out their own garbage and be nice. His neighbors have complained about the noise, but some Moab politicians have applauded, sharing his hopes that weaning at least a few motorized riders from the public lands might ease the level of conflict and reduce damage to the landscape.
But uranium is not quite finished leaving its mark on Moab, either. The $400 million, 10-year government cleanup project will create hundreds of transportation and engineering jobs - the kind of work that people thought was long gone here.
"How ironic it is; we're going back to the thing we started with," said Joette Langianese, who represents Moab's west side on the Grand County Council. "There's going to be a boom from moving this pile, like there was from uranium in the first place."