While the Pack Creek Fire in the La Sal Mountains — 80% contained as of Wednesday — has threatened the homes and livelihoods of Moab residents and wildlife alike, outdoor recreation has also taken a hit.
“It is easy to see that wildfires close to Moab are going to have an extremely detrimental effect on outdoor recreation,” said Chief Pilot Jackson Zoellner of Redtail Air Adventures in Moab. “Wildfire season continues to grow longer and longer and closer and closer to our homes; it’s going to have a negative effect not only on our quality of life living here, but also the jobs that support this area.”
As climate change has exacerbated the American West’s hot, dry summers in recent decades, popular outdoor recreation areas have fallen victim to wildfires that then negatively impact local economics and livelihoods. The Grizzly Creek wildfire near Glenwood Springs, Colo. came close to destroying Hanging Lake, an iconic destination for Colorado tourists. Closed in August 2020, the area just reopened with a reservation system in April. 7,500 reservations were claimed in the sale’s first 90 minutes.
Glenwood Springs had to foot the bill for infrastructure repairs and projects due to the fire, totaling $86 million. Lost revenue due to less tourism in the area, paired with the hefty cost of the fire on the city, is a pattern that stands to become more prevalent as wildfires ravage the country due to climate change and population increase.
Following a trend across the West, Utah has grown significantly in the past decade, boasting the fastest-growing population in the country, according to the 2020 census. As such, the state’s wild urban interfaces — transitional areas between unoccupied land and human development — have extended further and further into the wild, where undeveloped areas are tinder boxes during the dry, hot summer months. As of June 27, there are nine active fires in the state of Utah according to Utah Wildfire Info.
More people often means more risk of wildfire during the summer months, as tourists ignorant or neglectful of state fire restrictions and best practices travel to Utah’s precious natural wonders. How such impact endangers the state’s world-class outdoor recreation is a matter to be considered in Moab, the state of Utah and the American West as a whole.
Zoellner reported that smoke from the Pack Creek Fire had a negative impact on the company’s scenic air tours in the beginning of June. Redtail Air’s flights offer stunning views of Arches, Canyonlands, Monument Valley, Moab and more from the sky, but wildfire smoke clouded the breathtaking views over the past month.
“There haven’t been any days where we weren’t able to fly because of the smoke, but it isn’t quite as good of a tour,” said Zoellner. Redtail’s planes flew up to 11,000 feet to avoid the smoke, he said, but the smoke prevailed. However, Redtail’s operations are based far enough north that they avoided the temporary flight restriction over the La Sals due to the fire, meaning they could continue to fly.
This fire isn’t the first that has impacted Redtail Air’s operations. Last summer’s Grizzly Creek fire in Colorado spread smoke westward towards Moab, which “significantly limited” visibility, according to Zoellner. In comparison, he said, the Pack Creek fire produced much more smoke, much closer to town.
On clear days, Redtail passengers can see all the way to Navajo Mountain on the Utah-Arizona border and even to the San Juan Mountains in Telluride, Colo. But the Pack Creek Fire’s smoke only allowed for four miles of visibility at its height, Zoellner said — pilots in Moab are required to have three miles of visibility at the very least — which shrouded these landmarks from view. Closer points of interest appeared hazy, and at the start of the fire, the La Sal Mountains themselves were not visible.
“We had a few people call up and say they wanted to cancel their scenic tour because of the smoke — we’ve lost quite a few seats,” said Zoellner. “Sometimes on tours I would have to tell people, ‘I know it doesn’t look like it now, but there are mountains out there.’ That makes it a completely different experience for the passengers, and we try to tell them that this is relatively unique.”
Redtail Air is also the fixed-based operator for Canyonlands Field Airport, providing fuel, parking, aircraft rental and maintenance and other services for visiting planes and pilots. As such, the company provided fuel for the air attack airplanes and helicopters used to fight the Pack Creek Fire — at a discounted rate. Zoellner spent the first weeks of June helping firefighting pilots prepare their aircraft late into the night and early in the morning.
Several mountain bike rental businesses and mountain bike enthusiasts in Moab have felt the loss of the Whole Enchilada, a legendary trail that attracts tourists from around the world. The trail starts in the alpine of the La Sals and ends under the red buttes near the Colorado River.
“When the fire was in a really uncontrolled state, there was a lot of fear that the Whole Enchilada would burn down,” said Kirstin Peterson, Owner and Guide at Rim Tours Mountain Bike Adventures. The company offers guided rides of the Whole Enchilada and its many subtrails, such as Burro Pass, Hazzard County, Kokopelli Trail and Porcupine Rim.
Luckily, the famed trail itself did not suffer devastating burns, according to Brian Murdock, the United States Forest Service recreation, trails and wilderness manager.
“As far as recreation infrastructure, we kind of lucked out,” said Murdock. With the exception of Pack Creek day use area, where the fire originated, Oowah Lake and Warner Lake campgrounds were not affected. “Only the first half-mile or so of the Whole Enchilada was burned. People probably won’t even notice that much damage on it,” Murdock continued.
The most heavily burned areas include Clark Lake, Moonlight Meadows and the Trans La Sal Trail. Roads used by guide services, shuttle services and self-guided mountain bikers will remain closed until July 15 at the earliest. Cleaning Geyser Pass Road of hazard trees, snags and burn damage is a top priority, though the backside of the road is still under evacuation order from the San Juan County Sheriff. “It’s probably going to be a while until people can get up to the Whole Enchilada,” said Murdock.
“There’s not a huge area where there’s active fire right now, but the trails all lead towards it, so we’re trying to figure out the smallest closure area we can have and still keep people safe,” said Murdock. “We don’t want anyone to accidentally end up where there’s still active fire.
This weekend, the forest service will evaluate emergency responses needed on trails and roads, including drainage and stabilization to mitigate increased runoff and erosion on trails. Increased erosion is an expected challenge.
The season to ride the Whole Enchilada from the top is short, as the United States Forest Service does not allow commercial activity, including shuttles and guided tours, on the upper part of the trail until July 1. The late start date ensures adequate time for snow to melt and trail maintenance, but access can end as early as September with early winter snowfall. The fire damage to Geyser Pass Road, though the mountain bike trail itself was spared, will mean an even shorter season for riding the Whole Enchilada. But Murdock stressed that the forest, and its recreational activities, will bounce back.
“There’s always such an emotional reaction to fire when you see those huge smoke columns, but it’s not all gloom and doom,” he said. “Most people using the trails are not going to notice much difference, and the rest of it will come back pretty quick. It might take a little while, but it’s not going to be the end of recreation in the La Sals by any means.”
Narrowly escaping destruction, the spared trails in the La Sals mean that economic recovery for outdoor recreation businesses in Moab from this wildfire will only take time. But with wildfires becoming more and more frequent and destructive, so will its effects on one of Moab’s most lucrative and prevalent industries.