By: Jack Stauss
It’s no secret: rural towns across America are facing incredible challenges. From housing crises to changing economies, to boom and bust cycles, living and making a living in a small community is no easy task. Building a life in a small town requires both rugged individualism and a strong connection to the community. Having grown up in a tiny town back east, I realize how important flexibility is to living in places like that; residents have to roll with the wild ride that the seasons bring.
In today’s world, living and thriving in rural communities has become even more complicated. While I am only a frequent visitor to these areas and am not experiencing their challenges firsthand, I am acutely aware of them. More recently, I have tried to understand the position we have found ourselves in and how we may be able to work toward a more sustainable future in the small towns I visit and love.
The Conundrum: amazing places with nowhere to live
The canyon country of Utah is a place like no other. Millions of years of geology, water, and wind carved the land in a way that is found nowhere else on Earth. I have been lucky to explore the region for years and do my part to help others do the same.
The allure of the place is of course both its blessing and its curse. The Covid-19 pandemic brought a massive influx of tourists to rural Western towns as they fled the chaos of pandemic-era urban centers. These tourists bought or rented houses, apartments, and Airbnb-type rentals with the promise of freedom that the West provides. This pressure from tourists has become problematic for year-round inhabitants: people that work within the communities. Similarly, big companies capitalized on economic opportunities to buy up. Small towns, like Moab, Utah, have been ground zero of this disparity.
Grand County, which Moab is a part of, is fueled by the tourism economy. Many come to town to work for the National Park Service or private guiding companies. Folks work in cafes and bars, providing the backbone of a lively outdoor recreation hub. Many want to make this lifestyle and the place their permanent residence. The salaries of these jobs have not kept up with the prices of housing, and because of the nature of the town, many individuals are unable to find a place because there simply aren’t enough long-term homes.
This has created a reality in which, for many, finding housing there has become almost impossible. In Moab, the average 2 bedroom 1 bathroom is $1,800. Most houses are closer to $3,000, and between the years of 2019 and 2020, the cost of housing increased by nearly 49% while wages only grew 8%, per this KSL article. Even people who have called the place home for decades and work as nurses and firefighters are having a difficult time living in their community.
Moab, and other small towns close to amazing recreation opportunities like Park City and Springdale (Zion), have tried to pass local laws that would regulate both vacation rentals as well as out-of-state corporations from buying and renting properties. The state of Utah, however, considers these regulations to infringe on private property rights. Because of this, efforts to protect affordable housing have been largely unsuccessful as laws passed by the Utah State Legislature have countered local bills.
A case study: Green River
In 1973, Holiday River Expeditions chose to make Green River, Utah their headquarters for a number of trips down the Green and Colorado Rivers. This move was strategically made to support a small town and to grow its business in a centrally located part of the desert. Green River, like Moab, is the hub for amazing recreation, but, perhaps because it is right off of I-70 or not surrounded by national parks (like Moab), it has not yet had the boom that Moab has seen.
Like Holiday, the community in Green River wants to see their town grow in a sustainable way, hopefully learning from what has happened in Moab, Springdale, and Park City. Community organizers like Epicenter Green River have been hard at work. Their goal is to build housing, economy, and livelihoods with a thoughtful and holistic approach: doing research to assess need, building homes for the disabled and underprivileged first, designing prototype affordable housing, and creating a bigger vision for communal living and housing spaces.
Epicenter also recognizes the need to uplift the town, the amenities as well as all of the amazing recreation opportunities that the region surrounding Green River has to offer. The group hosts community potlucks where plans for new trail development, marketing, and downtown uplift are all discussed and implemented. This group and its mission are a great example of how we can work within the boundaries of our local space and place to grow in a sustainable manner.
In Moab, there is some hope, too. Groups like Community Rebuilds are breaking ground on affordable housing and giving residents the opportunity to find somewhere near the town center to live.
Learning from the past
The West has long been a place of adaptation and change. It is mired in extremes: both arid, hot, and dry as well as stormy, windy, and at times torrential. For millennia people have dealt with this rollercoaster of climatic change. Since the Euro-American settlement, there have been a variety of methods for living here. From ranching and homesteading to mining minerals and energy, to recreation, we can learn from the past and plan for a better future. We know that boom and bust cycles, much like what is happening with vacation housing today, will ultimately fail.
Unfortunately, it is also a place where industry and economic interests have been able to take root often at the expense of the community, the land, and the waters. We have seen this throughout the West from Jackson Hole, WY to Bluff, UT – if there is money to be made quickly, someone will likely try and do it.
But we can learn from these histories and set a new course…
A new era
Looking to places like Green River and community projects like Epicenter Green River and Community Rebuilds, we can join a legacy of Western adaptation and plan for a better future. Through good planning, zoning, and letting local communities express what they want and need, we can support the new era of livelihoods in the Southwest.
For many of us, as visitors to the region, we can decide where we go and how we want to spend our money. When I go to the desert I will be conscious about the rentals I book and the land that I spend my time on. I will purchase items from local companies, working to embolden the communities they are part of. I will thank workers in small businesses, bars, and cafes with good tips and polite manners. In a bigger sense, we can pay attention to which policymakers are helping our communities versus which are making it harder to maintain agency.
I am excited to visit Moab, Green River, Bluff, and more small towns scattered across the West. I’m excited to wander the winding canyons, splash in the rivers, and climb high to vistas overlooking distant blue mesas. But when I return to my urban life, I will not forget about the lives people are creating in those places and will advocate for their futures.
Jack Stauss moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 in pursuit of big mountains and wide-open spaces. He has spent the last several years both enjoying and advocating for public lands and free-flowing rivers. While he’s not typing on his keyboard, he will be backcountry skiing in the Wasatch or exploring Utah’s wild deserts. Read some of his environmental musings at email@example.com or follow him at @jackstauss on Instagram.