On Friday and Saturday, April 19 and 20, I worked for Moab Solutions by coordinating the recycling and trash collection on Potato Salad Hill, a popular 4x4 recreation area.
Located at the end of an unmarked road near the Moab Landfill, Potato Salad Hill attracts hundreds of off-road enthusiasts every year during Jeep Week.
It is worth noting that the activities at Potato Salad Hill are not officially associated with Jeep Week. During most of the rest of the year, Potato Salad Hill (PSH) remains fairly unpopulated. The Grand County Sheriff’s Office, along with the support of Moab Solutions, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting homeless individuals and promoting environmental cleanup and protection, works diligently to protect this ecologically fragile area prior to, during and after the event week.
My observations during these two afternoons warrant a more serious evaluation of how our community prepares for and responds to the impact of one of the largest events of the year.
Over the years, Sara Melnicoff, founder and director of Moab Solutions, has spent an impressive number of hours working during and after Jeep Week to prevent the destruction of the desert landscape as a result of off-road activities. Prior to that weekend, I followed Sara on a brief tour at PSH, and she explained how the conservation of this area has improved over time. However, the continued impact of UTVs and other off-road vehicles and their drivers should raised concerns for this community.
For those of us living in Moab and surrounding communities who generally do not partake in 4x4 activities, we can assume a lot about those who attend Jeep Safari. I live on 300 South, which is one of the main thoroughfares used by UTVs, and I easily slip into judgmental patterns. I see enough Blue Lives Matter (black and white stripes with a blue stripe in the middle) Confederate, and Don’t Tread on Me flags attached to these 4x4s to understand that racism and aggressive right-wing ideologies do exist in this community. However, my interactions with spectators and participants on PSH were quite varied and I began to question my tendency to lump all of these folks together.
On Friday, April 19, I parked adjacent to a large dumpster and a line of labeled recycle bins at PSH. I slowly surveyed the entire area and began making loops around the top and bottom of the hill to collect trash and recyclables. To my surprise, I received an overwhelmingly positive response as I walked through swaths of onlookers. As I picked up empty beer cans, micro-trash, cigarette butts and bits of food, people thanked me and asked questions about Moab Solutions. Some people assured me that they would pack out their waste. Others asked me questions about our community recycling program.
However, I also experienced some overwhelmingly negative interactions. I encountered some young people who dismissed the idea of cryptobiotic soil, insisting that “it’s just sand.” Steady alcohol consumption fueled belligerent behavior and an unstable environment for children in attendance. Numerous families scattered trash around the vicinity of their tailgates in the midst of a powerful afternoon wind storm, leading to an abundance of litter scattered in crypto-dominated areas. By the end of the weekend, I began brainstorming about ways to improve the social dynamic of the event while protecting the landscape. I think many of these folks could benefit from social services and support mechanisms that exist outside of the scope of law enforcement.
Many of us likely wonder how to communicate important messages about our unique desert community to the thousands of tourists visiting throughout the year. I would like to build momentum around creating standardized educational materials for distribution to tourists available at all overnight accommodations. Upon checking in at their hotel room or nightly rental, tourists could receive a brief introduction to the community they are visiting, along with some critical rules of thumb. Additionally, we desperately need more signage at all highly trafficked outdoor recreation areas, including PSH and Mill Creek Canyon.
Tackling the impacts of industrialized tourism in Moab requires ingenuity along with a substantial amount of compassion. We should avoid quickly dismissing tourists referring to them as a monolithic entity with identical motivations and values. The visitors in our community are the wrong target. Strategic targets include the national and international advertising campaigns driving unsustainable travel and unfettered development quickly swallowing up our already limited resources. Let’s work together to direct our frustration wisely and take power over our community.
Steph Hamborsky ventured west from Austin, Texas, to Moab in May 2017 and quickly found herself rooted in the arid high desert. She enjoys community organizing, growing food and exploring the landscape on bike and foot whenever possible.