Selling San Juan: Part 6

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 6: Growth and the Not-Entirely-Invisible Hand

The previous parts of the essay have been an attempt to thoroughly describe amenity migration and its underlying socioeconomic logic.  This part is more prescriptive and narrowly focused on development processes.  The six observations below are primers on topics that profoundly affect the particulars of growth, but typically only do so in a submerged, poorly understood way.

1.  There are no silver bullets.

Understanding that the post-war template of car-centric development is problematic is an important first step.  But avoiding car-centric development is not as simple as adopting a replacement checklist.  Towns are a kind of organism and their fate is determined by a nearly infinite range of interdependent variables.  Also, no existing place starts from scratch; the communities of San Juan County already have a legacy culture and development pattern from which their future will stem.

For these and other reasons, I am an advocate of the Strong Towns maxim that a “smart but chaotic” approach to planning and development is much better than one that is “orderly but dumb.”  Put another way, it is a good idea to be skeptical of grand theories and master plans, and to look for ways to incorporate flexibility and feedback loops into processes of planning and development.

2.  Envision San Juan.

I think it is imperative that the communities of San Juan County review and revise their land use ordinances to make them more responsive to increased tourism and amenity migration.  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest this might be the rare instance when adopting a temporary moratorium on development may be worth considering.

I also think this type of zoning review should fit within a comprehensive county-wide land use planning effort along the lines of Envision Utah or Vision Dixie.  The process would bear some resemblance to the San Juan Land Council process, but would focus on elements entirely within local control.  LUDMA rather than FLPMA, if you will.

Such a visioning project might help repair of some of the damage done to community solidarity by the monument process.  The basis for this optimism is that a regional visioning process (1) implicitly acknowledges a shared destiny and love for San Juan County while also providing space for the real differences among its individual communities to play out at the local level; and (2) explicitly excludes the influence of groups from outside San Juan.

Of course, such a visioning process is not merely a feel-good exercise in participative democracy.  Some planning issues can only be addressed at the regional scale and many more issues are better addressed at that that level.

3.  Experts and their limitations.

The use of experts to complete the process of formulating and writing county and municipal comprehensive plans and zoning codes is a good idea.  It’s rarely a good use of a community’s time or resources to develop this particular skillset in-house.

However, a wariness of experts is healthy given that one of the prominent ways in which the modern planning and development process has gone offtrack is through extreme disciplinary specialization.  Whether it is the planner, the engineer, the economic development officer, the elected representative, or the public safety official, there has been an observable trend toward mission creep and insularity.  To overcome this tendency, someone must be empowered to ensure the sub-disciplinary parts are serving the whole and not the reverse.

It is also imperative to do some basic math as part of the process of assessing competing development patterns at the global scale.  Examples include estimating how much land will be consumed, at what rate, and with what consequences to tax revenue, housing affordability, etc. under alternative development scenarios; estimating the short- and long-term costs to maintain and replace the public works associated with the alternative scenarios; making explicit in financial terms the incentives and disincentives embedded in tax and regulatory policy.

4.  Sticking to the plan.

In my experience, it is pretty rare for even a highly imperfect comprehensive planning process to yield a really bad plan.  That’s because comprehensive plans are prepared in the cold light of day when macro threats, opportunities and constraints are front-and-center and narrower interests are subordinate.  When viewed from the big picture and the long term, most people tend to substantially agree on what constitutes a desirable outcome for their community.

The real challenge is the tactical problem of sticking to the adopted plan, since doing so requires faithful, disciplined adherence to the community’s putative vision to many specific land use applications by many different people across many years.  City staff, planning commissions and councils inevitably turn over; Nimbyism is real and it is powerful.  These reasons, and not any deficiency of the comprehensive plan itself, are why the typical actual outcome of development departs from plan to such a significant and disappointing degree.

5.  Small-scale, incremental growth. Always.

One of the defining characteristics of the post-war development pattern is the way it departs from a centuries-long pattern of gradual, granular growth in favor of a systemic bias toward “lumpy,” large-scale projects.  When, for example, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker are horizontally integrated into a big box store or when they take the form of franchisees of national brands taking up tenancy in the local mall, certain negative consequences are predictable if not inevitable.

On the front end, barriers to new entry are raised by large-scale development to a level that completely shuts out the small-time operator.  Big buildings on big lots require big money during the development and construction phase, as well as during the subsequent lifespan of business operation.  So, if “Bigness” is the form of growth San Juan County encourages, on purpose or by accident, it will almost certainly be fueled disproportionately by out-of-town money pursuing business models built on car traffic.  By contrast, smaller buildings on smaller lots designed primarily with pedestrian traffic in mind are within the reach of many more would-be developers and small business owners, some of whom already live in San Juan County.

Image: Strong Towns, Johnny Sanphillippo.

At the end of the lifespan of a large-scale project, like when all the value is extracted from the mall or big box center, a town is left with a giant empty husk that goes radically negative on a tax-versus-services basis and is difficult or impossible to retrofit as a more human-oriented, flexible space.  In general, the process of depreciation and obsolescence of a large-scale project occurs all at once and its upkeep and disposition involves the motivations of a single (usually institutional) property owner.

By contrast, providing an evolutionary advantage to “Smallness” intrinsically elevates the “smart but chaotic” preference for multiple, non-fatal bets.  If a single store on Main Street goes out of business, its failure is generally limited to that space; it doesn’t take the entire street or neighborhood down with it.  If donuts can’t make a go of it from a given storefront, maybe burritos can.  Whereas Big is brittle, Small is supple.

Granted, the degree of risk faced by San Juan County on this front may seem relatively low — malls and big box stores are not feasible in SJC — but it is still incredibly important that the community think hard about the tradeoffs between local versus absentee ownership, the difference between building a community for people rather than cars, and how to encourage the construction of buildings that will stand the test of time as beloved community objects instead of flimsy monuments to planned obsolescence.

6.  Empower locals (more “win points” for incrementalism).

Image: Strong Towns.

The perception is that starting almost any business these days takes a lot of money and expertise.  This perception is even stronger when that business is development.  And of course there is truth to this.  However, it is also true that this perception is partly a practical and cognitive byproduct of the predominance of globalized capitalism and the suburban growth pattern, both of which are characterized by scale economies.  Remember, car-centric development was not the norm for most of human history and until very recently, development was a set of activities undertaken primarily by ordinary people using the materials and technology commonly available at the time.

So, the task before a place like San Juan County is not to invent a completely new model of development as much as it is to undo or reverse certain biases toward Bigness and to awaken the latent tendency among locals toward independence and DIY-ness.  I believe it is a worthy and absolutely realistic goal to create a systemic bias that enables the local person who loves their community and looks at the boarded up gas station or vacant lot and thinks “someone ought to do something about that,” to… actually do something about that.

Here are three specific places to start: don’t treat the small, simple project the same as the large, complex one for purposes of zoning and building approvals; at least consider reflecting in the impact fee and/or tax code the economic and environmental advantages of adding an incrementally more intense mixture of productive uses to the existing system of public works compared with expanding the system of public works to new, widely-spaced, monofunctional residential areas; facilitate sound how-to instruction of the knowledge necessary to get started as a small-scale developer.

Parting Thoughts

Note that all of the observations above are based on the premise of growth — that there will be increased tourism and migration to San Juan County now that it has been amenitized by the Bears Ears designation.  Is it possible to either stimulate or blunt this new demand?  Yes, of course.

But I think it is unwise to assume that maintaining status quo is a realistic possibility.  I also think it would amount to insult on top of injury if tourism and amenity migration largely displaces locals physically, culturally or economically, or if the new demand for San Juan County is met primarily by businesses in towns on the periphery of the county and carpetbaggers.  More optimistically, the influx of interest and capital represents not just a threat but an opportunity to the residents of the county.


Select sources & additional reading:

Selling San Juan: Part 5

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 5: My Town, Inc.

A city or town is, among other things, a corporation defined by its geographic boundary.  The residents of the town are its shareholders and the prosperity of the municipal corporation is essentially a function of the productivity of the real estate within its city limits.  Given the differential costs and benefits associated with distinct development patterns, it follows that local land use policy is one of the key variables in determining not just the physical identity and social conditions of a place but also its long term fiscal resilience.  As unpoetic as these observations may be, it is imperative to confront them explicitly.

America’s Suburban Experiment

In many respects, the proliferation of the New West ranchette is simply an extreme expression of the suburban development pattern that dominates the landscape of post-1945 America.  A deeper understanding of the modern suburban development pattern is therefore a good starting point for better understanding the tradeoffs associated with the typical New West development pattern.

Comparing the underlying logic of the suburban experiment with what prevailed before about 1945 can be fairly reduced to a single distinction: for all of human history before 1945, development was organized around the human being; since 1945, the organizing unit is the automobile.  This single shift, aided and abetted by essentially the entire American financial and political apparatus, has given us a built environment notable for, among other things, its extreme monofunctionality and rapid consumption of land.  Fine lines are now brightly drawn between industrial, commercial and residential land uses, and between the rich, middle-class and poor.  Also, much more space between all types of productive land use is required for (and enabled by) the use and storage of our cars.  This shift has made it broadly infeasible or even illegal to develop land according to a resilient, flexible neighborhood form and has effectively killed a wide range of time-tested affordable housing types.  That this shift in the logic of development has also planted a time bomb within the balance sheet of the typical municipal corporation is only now becoming widely apparent.

When a new subdivision is built, substantially all of the improvements — utilities, pavement, curb-and-gutter, sidewalk, etc. — are constructed at the expense of the private developer (which are, in turn, bundled into the price of a finished building lot or home) and then dedicated to the public.  This is the essence of greenfield development and, on its face, it seems like a great deal for the city and its residents: a free bump to total public assets plus an expanded tax base plus usually the payment of impact fees or other exactions on development.  The only hitch is that this process also effectively puts a long term liability on the city’s balance sheet in the form of the maintenance and eventual replacement of the constructed improvements.  The (unasked) municipal finance question becomes whether the new revenue stream associated with the new land use at least matches the new liability. And the answer, when it comes to the suburban development pattern, is that it doesn’t and it isn’t even close.  The phenomenon is fully exposed in an extremely detailed study of the city of Lafayette, Louisiana, by a team of experts at this analysis.

Joe, Josh and I interviewed all the city’s department heads and key staff. We gathered as much data as we could (they had a lot). We analyzed and then mapped out all of the city’s revenue streams by parcel. We then did the same for all of the city’s expenses. This was the most comprehensive geographic analysis of a city’s finances that I’ve ever seen completed. When we finished, we had a three dimensional map showing what parts of the city generated more revenue than expense (in business terms, this would be called profit) and what parts of the city generated more expense than revenue (again, in business terms, this is considered a loss).

Here’s that map. In accounting terms, green equals profit and red equals loss. The higher the block goes, the larger the amount of profit/loss. If you have a sense of the basic layout of North American cities post World War II, you can figure out pretty easily what is going on here.

Text & Image: Urban3/Strong Towns

A few easily-understood metrics calculated by the consultants further reveal the root of the problem: between 1949 and 2015, while Lafayette’s population grew by 350%, the city’s feet of culinary water pipe per person increased by 1,000% and its fire hydrants per 1,000 people by 2,140%.  In effect, as Lafayette shifted from relatively compact traditional development to the rambling suburban form, all the increase in top-line wealth was outstripped several times over by the expenses of a radically expanded system of public works.  The consultants calculated that the imbalance had become so extreme that to catch up with the city’s maintenance obligations would require a property tax increase of 533%, an impossible figure.  In sum, an extended period of robust growth had led not to the enrichment of the city but to its impoverishment if not insolvency, a circumstance which is not unusual in the least in America.

Note that this phenomenon is an axiomatic consequence of the post-war development pattern.  It can’t be blamed on low property values; in fact, the math almost always reveals that the poor neighborhoods of a city subsidize the affluent.  It is also not an issue of savvy versus incompetent city administration, nor simply a function of commercial property subsidizing residential.  In fact, in a head-to-head comparison of commercial land uses, the car-centric form fares even worse.

Image: Urban3/Congress for the New Urbanism

So, not only does a big box store like Walmart impoverish a community directly by crushing the locally-owned mom-and-pop retailers of Main Street and siphoning profits out of the local economy, but indirectly by returning a pittance in taxes on an apples-to-apples (i.e. per-acre) basis, all while reinforcing car dependence and consuming a massive chunk of a city’s stock of land. It’s fair to say this is a better deal for Walmart than for the town.

The next parts of the essay will delve with more detail into a discussion of some of the tactical topics raised by the broad shift to a suburban development pattern, with particular focus on its expression in the gentrifying rural West.  This will bring me (finally) to some of the “things to watch” in San Juan County post-Bears Ears designation.  But this brief introduction to the financial implications of the choice between traditional and suburban development patterns is a necessary detour for understanding some of the stakes associated with being more precise when we talk about “development.”


Select sources & additional reading:
Much of this part of the essay is a selective summary of a particular strand of critical thinking about urbanism that is gaining increasing traction across North America.  Two allied individuals and the organizations they lead deserve particular credit for synthesizing and communicating this approach.  A more capacious introduction to their work can be found at these links:
Marohn, C. Curbside Chat. Strong Towns.
Minicozzi, J. The City Shaped. Urban3.

Selling San Juan: Part 4

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 4: New West Exurbia

The core process of this change is parcelization — the division of land into progressively smaller tracts. As large parcels encompassing fields, forests, and grasslands become subdivided and developed, rural areas face declining returns on farming and logging activities. At the same time, undeveloped parcels become farther apart and face increasing pressure to further subdivide and develop. New roads and other infrastructure that serve these scattered lots perforate productive agricultural and forested areas. Communities then end up paying more for services than they collect from property taxes. In addition, low density rural development fragments wildlife habitat.

— Kennedy & McFarlane. Identifying Parcelization and Land Use Patterns in 3 Wisconsin Towns. Bayfield County, WI.

The Revolution Will Be Subdivided

As noted in an earlier part of the essay, rural restructuring due to amenity migration shifts the basis of a local economy from agriculture and resource extraction to tourism and real estate development.  Anyone familiar with the gentrifying New West is familiar with its signature form: the large custom home (or cluster of homes and outbuildings) on a very large lot or ranchette, with the edge of town becoming increasingly less clear as relatively abundant large parcels in the unincorporated county are subdivided for residential use.

La Plata County, CO. Photo:

This land use pattern is neither fish nor fowl: no longer agricultural in any productivist sense nor pristine, but also not nearly dense enough to avoid the rapid consumption of open space or create any of the benefits of urbanism.  It is, for lack of a better word, sprawl, and quantifying the scope of the phenomenon in the New West is illuminating.  One analysis of western Montana found that the population of the subject area grew by 50% between 1970 and 2006 while the acreage developed for residential use grew by 200%.  Note that the disparity here between population growth and residential land consumption is actually even greater than it may seem at first glance: the unit of residential demand  is not the individual but the household and the average household size in a given area is almost certain to be greater than two.  So, population growth of 50% translates to household growth and corresponding new housing demand of something less than 25%.

Another paper, which thoroughly examined the proliferation of ranchettes in La Plata County, Colorado, found that, as of 2008, this land use form (defined quite narrowly, for sensible reasons, as parcels of 35-70 acres) comprised fully a quarter of all private, nonprotected land in the county.  In real numbers, 106,445 acres were occupied by just 2,610 ranchettes at the time of the analysis.

Even closer to San Juan County, it is clear that a similar process is unfolding in the area around Moab.  Between 1980 and 2010, the population of Grand County grew by about 1,000 people.  So, applying conservative assumptions, all of Grand County’s net population growth over a 30-year period could have comfortably fit on 165 acres, an area about half the size of Bluff, Utah.[1]  It is obvious even from a casual “windshield analysis” that much, much more land than this has been consumed by new residential development in Grand County during the past 30-odd years.  Of course, after accounting for secondary homeownership, the total demand for residential development in Moab is significantly greater than what is needed to serve permanent residents.[2]  Still, it should be sobering to note that the same 165 acres that could easily accommodate all of the net population growth in Grand County over a 30-year period constitutes no more than four new households in the form of La Plata ranchettes or one Sorrel River Resort.

[1] The 165-acre estimate assumes two people per new household and three homes per net acre.  In practical terms, this assumes 100% of new residences would be single-family detached homes on lots in the range of 10,000-11,000 square feet.  This is basically the residential form of the typical low-density modern suburb.  By contrast, the typical size of single-family lots in traditional neighborhoods (e.g. Sugarhouse in SLC) is in the range of 5,000-7,000 square feet, which yields a net density of around five homes per acre.  Also, according to the US Census, the actual average household size in Grand County is 2⅓ people.  If you apply these slightly less conservative assumptions — 2⅓ people per household and five dwellings per acre — the homes needed for the 1,000 new residents added to Grand County between 1980 and 2010 would fit on about 85 acres.  Note that even this less conservative estimate assumes 100% single-family detached homes.

[2] According to the statistical reporting of the Utah State Tax Commission, Grand County’s primary/secondary homeownership rate is about 60/40.

Why The New West Looks Like This

Before more fully addressing some of the ways in which New West sprawl writ large may be a problem, it must be acknowledged that, writ small, it makes perfect sense.  In fact, the process is entirely rational to the participants: affluent consumers of residential real estate have a particular aesthetic vision of the rural West that is obviously best expressed on a large plot of land at a happy remove from neighbors; the very reason developers and realtors exist is to satisfy this sort of demand; landowners become enthusiastic land sellers as the demand for residential property drives prices above the economic returns of agricultural production or sentimental attachment; existing residents perceive very large lots and ranchettes as respecting and preserving the rural character of a place in a way that more urban residential forms do not; and subdividing very large parcels into merely large parcels requires no particular intention or political will on the part of local government.  In short, as in any good tragedy of the commons, the road to hell is paved with strong short term incentives.

Defining Development

Everyone hates traffic and everyone hates development.  And also, everyone is traffic and everyone is development.  This truism should begin to make apparent the problem with a reflexive, categorical opposition to development.  More to the point, “development” is a probably necessary but certainly insufficient label for the complex social and economic processes that yield the patterns of social arrangement and physical placemaking we can observe across history.  It is a term badly in need of some wrestling down.

When I think of Progress and what it means for places like Moab, I think of a community in which its citizens can earn a decent living, pay the bills, and have something left over at the end of the month. But I can call it Progress only when those citizens also realize the value of the intangible qualities that make our town unique and enrich our lives.

Qualities like the beauty and solitude of the canyons and mountains that surround us and qualities like the friendship, compassion and the trust and support of our neighbors are, to me, just as important as the bottom line on a financial statement.

Progress is maintaining our small town atmosphere while recognizing that some change is inevitable, and that change can sometimes even be an improvement.
Development is when the greed of its citizens allows uncontrolled growth that destroys all the qualities of small town life…the qualities that brought many of us here in the first place.

Progress is a business that flourishes and expands to meet a growing demand, while still maintaining the quality that caused its success in the first place. Its success is due to the owners’ talent and their hard work, and their employees’; expanding the business is the reward for their efforts.
Development is an out-of-town investor who sees there’s money to be made and throws up another fast food franchise, taking business and customers away from the local cafes that have survived for years and years.

Stiles, J. Progress v Development. The Canyon Country Zephyr.

I quote this piece at length here for at least two reasons.  One, it was written in 1994 and so allows for a fascinating bit of time travel into the mind of a thoughtful writer peering into the near future of his hometown and worrying about what that might look like.  We now live in that future and can consider the outcome of what must be millions of individual, local decisions that have been made between then and now, and weigh that outcome against his framework of development versus progress.  And, two, distinguishing “development” from “progress” is a sensible way of wrestling with the complexities embedded in the language we use to make sense of profound social and environmental change.

That said, in the next part of the essay I will take a slightly different approach.  I will suggest that “development” is itself a neutral term that generically describes a wide variety of activities that change the use of land along specific, concrete dimensions.  Different forms of development have different social, economic and environmental consequences, and reducing such distinct, complex processes to a single disparaging term tends to foreclose discussion at a point when a community needs it most.

As a social, economic and political process  — a human process — development is not a naturally occurring fact but a contingent and contestable activity.  In this sense, development is not itself an end but a means to an end or, more accurately, multiple ends.  If, for instance, the people of a municipality can broadly agree on a set of outcomes that would count as “progress,” then they have a chance of engaging processes of “development” that are consistent with that goal.  However, given the strong short term incentives outlined above, a community like Moab circa 1994 has essentially no hope of a future defined by something other than exurban sprawl if its approach to development is unintentional or persistently reactive.  For these reasons, I believe development, both as a term and a process, should be addressed directly.


Select sources & additional reading:

Selling San Juan: Part 3

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 3: The Ghost of Christmas Future

The needle to watch is in-migration, which is sure to change not just the demographics but also the politics in southern Utah. The new residents weren’t around when the counties were dominated by ranching and timber, so they don’t feel their absence the way county commissioners down there do.

If one year’s data turns out to be a trend, the next surprise could come at election time.

— Outsiders fueling southern Utah growth also will drive change. Salt Lake Tribune Editorial.

The phenomenon of New West gentrification is well documented by both academics and journalists, and primary data is readily available for independent analysis.  In this part of the essay, I will use a variety of these sources to review some of the key features of amenity migration generally, then explore the relevance of the experience of two counties adjacent to San Juan County in forecasting San Juan’s post-Bears Ears future.

The Brazilification of the West

Gentrification has been concisely defined as the spatial expression of economic inequality and, in its most extreme form, this aspect of the gentrification of small western towns shocks the conscience: average home prices of $700,000 or higher, with half or more of these extravagant residences sitting vacant except for a few weeks each year while all but the most affluent workers in the community struggle with serious housing insecurity or brutal daily commutes from relatively affordable locations “down valley.”  It is a social arrangement that is hard to top for its decadence and sheer wastefulness.

While a dysfunctional housing market is the principal sign of rural gentrification, there are other reliable indicators, including high tourism-related service employment as a percentage of the total workforce and high non-wage income levels.  The former metric is a decent measure of the density of wage serfs in a given place, and the latter is usually a general indication of the relative sociopolitical balance between capital and labor.

These defining elements of rural gentrification help explain why New West towns have very low cost-of-living adjusted wages and underpin the observation that such places are more theme park than town.  A growing number of formerly blue-collar western towns have come to embody the cliché: the postcard-perfect Main Street with the predictable array of restaurants, outfitters, and souvenir shops; the Colter- or Underwood-inspired residences perched on every scenic promontory; the fit, suntanned baristas and tour guides straight from central casting; the predominance of people of color in back-of-the-house occupations.  By design, the impression is of a place brimming with well-adjusted wealth and dynamism, but the underlying reality is far more ambiguous.

Along with the local economy, local politics are also, predictably and explicitly, shaped by the arrival of amenity in-migrants.  As a bloc, New West settlers typically see their new home in quite different terms from long-time locals and it is naive to expect such newcomers to have a light political footprint or otherwise show an interest in gradually integrating themselves into the established culture.  To the contrary, with few exceptions they fully intend to remake their new hometown in their own post-industrial image using all available means.

Note, however, that political change made manifest at the voting booth is really a trailing indicator.  In rough terms, amenity migration represents a shift from an economy based on agriculture and resource extraction to one based on real estate development in all its forms.  As such, local land use decisions, and the subdivision process in particular, are far more important than the ballot box for rapidly and decisively changing local character and the terms of economic and political engagement.  In this arena, communities who have never had to navigate the many pitfalls of the planning and zoning process in the context of serious growth pressure are at a tremendous disadvantage.

Garfield, Grand or Something In-Between

[T]he changes that are taking place in southern Utah — both social and economic — are not caused by monuments and won’t be reversed by rescinding them.

Nor should they.  While the old guard in Garfield and Kane counties have chafed for decades over their scapegoat, new families have moved in to embrace visitors who want to see what our nation considers monumental. How long before Garfield, like Moab’s Grand, flips to recognizing the brand power of national recognition?

—  Utah’s national monuments have already justified themselves. Salt Lake Tribune Editorial.

It is almost certainly true that reversing monument designations would not reverse amenity migration to southern Utah, but I’m not persuaded that the data support the Tribune’s apparent sentiment that the problem with Garfield County is that its traditional industries just aren’t dying fast enough or that the county’s economy just isn’t sufficiently linked to tourism or that “new families” is an accurate description of the majority of recent in-migrants.  After all, employment in tourism comprises over half of all employment in the county (the second highest share in Utah); quarterly employment data shows tourism’s familiar seasonal spikiness; and the decline in school enrollment concurrent with Garfield’s post-GSENM evolution is well documented.

No, for all the fuss over the Antiquities Act, I suspect Garfield County’s inability to live up to its New West potential has less to do with a lack of enthusiasm for GSENM on the part of the “old guard” and more to do with the fact that the county is so remote and sparsely populated that fairly brisk peak seasonal tourism is not readily convertible by entrepreneurs into the more endless kind.  Climatic differences between Garfield and Grand, and the sprawling nature of GSENM itself, also likely contribute to the monument’s muted, diffuse impact on Garfield’s gateway communities.

Given some of these similarities between Garfield-GSENM and San Juan-BENM, maybe San Juan will see an uptick in peak seasonal tourism due to monument designation, but a more tempered impact to its economy and overall character than Grand County has experienced.

Witness the “brand power of national recognition.”
Photo: Deseret News

Still, the probability is well above zero that San Juan could be headed for a future that looks more like Grand County than Garfield.  After all, there is potentially more for amenity migrants to work with in San Juan’s gateway towns than there is in Garfield’s even now: basic services like healthcare, telecommunications and transportation are on much firmer footing; there are arguably more spots within BENM than GSENM that hit the casual tourist’s sweet spot of (relatively) easy access and wow factor; and there is the fact of San Juan’s relative proximity to other prominent islands in the New West archipelago (think Durango, Telluride, and Moab itself).  Southbound New West creep from Moab into San Juan County is already manifest in areas like south Spanish Valley and Flat Iron Mesa, and of course there are already New West pioneers in Monticello, Blanding, and Bluff.  So it would be naive to assume that a version of Grand County has no chance of being reproduced in San Juan.

Boiled down, I personally think San Juan is likely to avoid the Grand County scenario.  Its geographic isolation and the untamed pitilessness of its backcountry — and it is nearly all backcountry — are likely to continue to keep at bay the largest droves of casual tourists and amenity migrants.  I can imagine no easy way to serve up Bears Ears on an Arches-like silver platter.  Also, while real estate in San Juan is relatively affordable, prices are not nearly as depressed as they were in Grand County when Moab was “discovered” in the 80s.  In other words, the barriers to new entry for amenity migrants are actually relatively high in San Juan County.

Still, even assuming San Juan’s future looks more like Garfield County than Grand, this would still represent a significant change from today, both for the communities of San Juan County and for the territory now called Bears Ears NM.  Visitation data for non NPS-administered monuments makes direct comparisons somewhat imperfect, but the best information I’m aware of indicates GSENM now gets 900,000 or so visitors a year.  By contrast, visitation of Natural Bridges NM, which represents a decent proxy for Cedar Mesa tourist traffic, peaked at about 150,000 during the economic boom years of the 90s and has rarely exceeded 100,000 annual visitors since then.

Tale of the Tape

[table id=1 /]

Table footnotes:
– Typical income and home price are median figures for, respectively, Escalante, Moab, Monticello [source].
– L&H = leisure & hospitality
– T-R = travel-related
– ADR = average daily rate
Utah State Tourism data by the Kem C. Gardner Institute at the University of Utah.


Select sources & additional reading:

Selling San Juan: Part 2

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 2: Bears Ears, by Patagonia

When deep space exploration ramps up, it will be corporations that name everything.  The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Philip Morris Galaxy. Planet Starbucks.

—  Jack, Fight Club

As asserted in this essay’s Part 1, amenity migration imposes a post-industrial order onto a rural western landscape previously defined by industrial-age logic and values.  It is structurally similar to colonialist projects of the past in its pursuit of the wholesale replacement of a worldview deemed unsophisticated and obsolete.  I will further develop these particular critical theoretical ideas in this part of the essay then move on to a discussion of the practical challenges and opportunities of amenity migration in subsequent sections.

A Brief (and Somewhat Academic) Discussion of Commodification

Nearly anything can be commodified — turned into an object of economic value — in large part because the process of commodification involves the intrinsic utility of the thing only as a starting point and primarily entails the thing’s ability to contain and express personal and social meaning.  We have, for example, the concepts of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure, in which Thorstein Veblen observed over 100 years ago that the wealthy of his time established their elevated personal worth and social status through displays of ostentatious, wasteful spending not widely available to the poorer classes of society.  Veblen also noted that, for their part and to the extent financially possible, the middle and lower classes often engaged in pecuniary emulation, which is the class-aspirational act of imitating the consumption and leisure practices of the wealthy.

In this way, the process of commodification is about the relationship between people as much as it is about the relationship between things.  Luxury goods command a price premium compared with their substitutes not because of, or at least not merely because of, their functional superiority, but because of their positional superiority.

Processes of commodification are of course always embedded in a particular historical context.  And so, as America has transitioned from an industrial to a post-industrial society, so has the range of possibilities for commodification.  Whereas in Veblen’s era the ordering of class differences revolved almost entirely around material objects of higher or lower esteem — houses, art, jewelry — it now incorporates post-productivist logic and values.  Social status is now fragmented along niche tribal lines from up and down and all across the socioeconomic strata and is sometimes even (paradoxically) expressed in terms that are oppositional to the production and consumption of material objects.  Society may not have become noticeably better at dealing with class, but the market has become immeasurably better at providing the means for its expression.

Post-Luxury and the Connoisseurship of Nature


Our language — as expressed in the academy, in professional business literature, and in mainstream culture — has reflected this evolution.  For instance, some researchers have extended Veblen’s terminology in noting the elevated status now associated with inconspicuous consumption and conspicuous conservation.  Increasingly, avant-garde brand strategists argue that conventional ideas about product-oriented class-signaling are entirely outdated, replaced by a New Luxury or Post-Luxury order in which metaphysical objects such as experiences and time itself have become the new frontier in the endless expansion of commodity fetishism.  And of course the modern marketing apparatus deftly engages such apparent non-commodities as nature and feminism to sell, for example, Jeeps (and vice versa).

New West yuppies — and the businesses, political parties, towns, NGOs, etc. to whom they are the target market — comprise a tribe that fully occupies the leading edge of this evolution.  In the New West, relics of the industrial Old West are not just undesirable but repugnant.  Oil derricks, mines, ATVs and livestock are not just stains on the landscape, but symbols of a low, coarse form of human civilization to be kept out of mind and therefore out of sight in an ugly corner of America or, better yet, offshore in a developing country.  The downmarket offerings of the typical Old West main street are likewise met with disdain.  Instead, the presence of amenities like yoga studios and third wave coffee shops signify the elevated status of a place, and nature itself is made a prestige product, an Instagram-perfect stage for the performance of socially worthy expressions of affluence.

This raises something about the Bears Ears narrative that I think is intuitively grating to many people with a longstanding connection to San Juan County: marking onto a map a boundary around nearly all of the county’s off-reservation backcountry and stamping it “Bears Ears National Monument” is itself an aggressive, reductive act of commodification.  The limited utility of the land along industrial and pre-industrial lines is essentially status quo ante, yet its socioeconomic meaning is completely transformed by the monument designation.  A landscape that went by many names and contained overwhelming multitudes of meaning was reduced not just to a political football, but a slick media brand suitable for easy use as a status good by millions of people who had never so much as heard of San Juan County before December 28, 2016.

The underpinning logic, here as in most New Luxury categories, comes down to questions of connoisseurship, and, in this conceptual move, the potential for drawing hairsplitting distinctions in the service of financial profit and class hierarchy becomes nearly limitless.  Perhaps the most common trope of the post-industrial connoisseur is the performance and ownership of “authenticity,”  and perhaps no corporation in the New West marketspace is more practiced at this form of antimarketing than Patagonia.

Ridgeway [VP of Public Engagement for Patagonia] can sometimes sound a little weary at having to explain to outsiders a way of life that comes quite naturally to him. ‘We don’t want to hold ourselves up in some arrogant exclusivity,’ Ridgeway said, but then described the kind of customer that Patagonia does not ‘necessarily want to invite under our umbrella.’ Namely, people who want to climb Mount Everest for bragging rights – the sort of affluent adventurers, drawn to climbing in part by Patagonia, whose impact Chouinard now regrets so much. ‘Someone who has paid $100,000 for a guided climb where the sherpas put the route in and risked their lives fixing the lines and carried all your stuff up for you and positioned your oxygen balls so you could go up and come back and say you climbed Everest. That doesn’t work for us,’ Ridgeway says. ‘And we don’t mind saying it publicly.’

—  Meltzer, M. Patagonia and The North Face: saving the world – one puffer jacket at a time. The Guardian.

It’s all right there: in a move that deems superficial and vulgar even “Patagonia-adjacent” manifestations of outdoor enthusiasm, we have luxury branding that pretends to be transcendent of both luxury and branding.  Patagonia constructs a particular hierarchy of authentic, enlightened outdoor connoisseurship and, as if by coincidence, those who buy into this articulation occupy the top point of the pyramid.  This is how it becomes not just logical, but an act of supreme good taste and environmental consciousness, to spend $65 on a pair of running shorts fabricated from petrochemicals, stitched in a Vietnamese factory, and shipped halfway around the world to a boutique in Telluride.  Or to launch, with no apparent sense of irony, an expensive, multimedia advertising and political campaign in “defense” of a landscape where the greatest objective threat of development and degradation has long been the one posed by the New West’s own social construction and commodification of nature.


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