Biological soil crust

Fresh tire tracks through biological soil crust in the Moab area. [Photo courtesy of Liz Thomas]

Some Moab residents are uniting to educate tourists about responsible recreation and outdoor ethics.

Moab’s famous red rock scenery and its concentration of outdoor recreational activities draws more and more visitors to the area each year. As visitor use increases and the tourist season expands beyond the April to October timeframe into the off season, the trails and landscapes that attract those tourists have become “over-loved”— damaged by the visitors seeking experiences in Moab. 

“Just by sheer numbers, the trails are getting hammered,” said Moab resident Liz Thomas. Thomas is on the board of directors at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), a nonprofit focused on environmental conservation. 

Thomas, along with Moab resident Walt Dabney, recently formed the Moab Area Responsible Recreation and Tourism (MARRT) citizens’ working group to address some of the impacts they’ve observed.

Through grassroots outreach, brainstorming and organizing, MARRT hopes to find ways to lighten the footprint of the massive number of visitors — an estimate growing at an upwards of 3 million annually.

Thomas and Dabney said they hope that through education and concise, effective messaging, they can discourage hikers, mountain bikers and motorists from going off trail, running over biological soil crusts, leaving graffiti on rocks and trees and other behaviors that negatively impact the Moab environment.

“I think 95 percent of people are trying to do what’s right and have no interest in hurting anything,” Dabney told the Moab Sun News in a recent interview. “And so to the extent we can get more information out to help them understand what the right way to visit an archaeological site, or why you need to stay on trails — those kinds of things —they’re going to do it.”

Thomas agreed.

“What we’re learning is that people just don’t know [about trail ethics]. Sure, there are a few bad apples out there, but the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of people we can reach are the people who just don’t know.” 

For the other 5 percent of people, Dabney said, even most of them just need a little more targeted education.

And for the remaining visitors, Dabney said, are willful with the intention “to do whatever they want.”

“...[W]hether it’s drive a 4-wheel-drive off the road, or take a mountain bike out through the crust just for the hell of it,” he said. “So, how do we deal with this small percentage — which is still a lot of people, out of 2.5 million — how do we reach them better than we’re doing now?” 

As a former law enforcement park ranger and National Park Service superintendent of the Southeast Utah Group of parks. Dabney thinks the most effective approach will include both education and enforcement.

With his informed perspective on visitor management, he said that just having law enforcement presence on the trails and at trailheads, even if that presence is intermittent, will send a message to users that “somebody is out there who cares how we do business.” However, land management agencies have limited staff and budgets to implement increased patrol or enforcement.

The MARRT does not plan to take direct enforcement actions, but Dabney says creating a culture in which going off-trail, leaving graffiti or disturbing archaeological artifacts is socially unacceptable will be more effective than trying to catch or track down offenders. 

“I really want to get an educational program going here that really enhances peer pressure,” Dabney said. “If you’re out riding with your buddies and one of them takes off, off the trail, for no reason — I want their buddies to say, ‘What in the hell are you doing? You’re just going to ruin this for all of us.’ And that is actually, in my opinion, a much more effective approach than trying to catch people to give them a ticket or something.” 

He envisions witty signage posted inside the vault toilets at popular trailheads to encourage trail ethics in the people who are about to head out on a trail. There are signs at many trail heads, but they may be outdated or too small to capture people’s attention. Other trails which were once rarely traveled in Moab are becoming more popular, increasing the need for signs in areas where formal direction is lacking.

Another problem Dabney pointed out is that as more international visitors arrive from other countries, they may not be able to understand the signs if English is not their first language. Agencies in charge of those trails may not have the resources to update their signs. 

MARRT plans to ask the Grand County Council for money from the Transient Room Tax (TRT) fund to implement the ideas they come up with based on input from land managers, businesses and the public. The group presented its mission and intention to the county council at the Jan. 15 meeting, but has not yet outlined specific actions.

“We’re just getting our feet under us,” Thomas said. “This is such a new venture.” 

MARRT has reached out to land management agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Sand Flats Recreation Area to ask about the solutions those agencies believe would reduce visitor impacts. The land managers may not have the funding in place to act on their own observations and information.

MARRT would like to eventually present its ideas to the county and ask for TRT money to be allocated for any plans it wants to take action on.

According to state law, TRT funds are to be set aside for tourism promotion and mitigation. Thomas and Dabney see MARRT’s mission as falling under both tourism promotion and mitigation — they want people to come use the trails, but to do it responsibly.

MARRT is not the first voice to suggest the TRT money could be used to promote responsible user behavior. In a Feb. 14 guest column in the Moab Sun News, Grand County Democratic Party Chair Kevin Walker called for similar action.

“Instead of spending over 3 million dollars per year trying to convince even more people to visit, we could spend that money educating the tourists who are already here on how to lessen their impact,” he wrote.

Thomas emphasized that MARRT does still want people to come visit Moab, but they hope to create a culture in which tourists know how to, and feel obligated to, recreate responsibly. 

MARRT is also working in partnership with the Moab Area Travel Council.

In response to public concern over runaway tourism, the travel council has been making an effort to promote “sustainable tourism,” and is seeking city and county support for a proposed Moab First Sustainable Tourism Task Force.

The task force will use input from businesses and the public to create a 20-year plan for sustainability, ecological health and cultural health. Already, the travel council has updated informational videos and websites about Moab, and now includes sustainability information on the travel council website, such as the new plastic bag ban and where to find electric vehicle charging stations.

Members of the travel council board have attended MARRT meetings.

Travel council director Elaine Gizler said, “I believe the goals for both the travel council and the MARRT are in sync when it comes to education of the visitor.” 

Thomas and Dabney both explained that the niche of MARRT will be “on-the-ground” outreach, like designing signs for individual trailheads, in contrast to “big-picture” planning and promotion.

While land management agencies and the travel council focus on bringing tourists to Moab and providing information to people as they plan their trips, MARRT wants to capture people in the moment as they are out recreating.

Thomas said that so far, response to the working group has been positive. Longterm Moab residents who expressed seeing the negative impacts from increased tourism may be happy to see other citizens trying to do something about it.