The search for sustainable tourism and resource preservation in the American West

Somewhere between scrambling down a rocky drop-off on the side of the highway to a hidden slot canyon and taking a break under an enchanted grotto of mossy ferns, Ella Bagley stops and smiles. Beams, actually. 

“I thought I would be so stressed this whole time, just thinking about how I need to get back and study, but it hasn’t been like that at all,” she says. “I haven’t worried about my test once. I just feel so in the moment.”

That’s the kind of feeling that made Bagley, a nursing student at the U, sign up for this U-Explore course at a spot just outside of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in the first place. Sure, she’d get two credits toward graduation, but more importantly, for 48 hours she would be able to escape into the wilderness with 12 soon-to-be friends. 

The beguiling lure of the great outdoors has grown in its power to bring people into its realm, drawing more visitors to remote regions with astounding landscapes and limited infrastructure. Even as some national parks closed and travel ceased during COVID lockdowns in 2020, 15 national parks still set visitation records, and the numbers just keep climbing. In Utah alone, Arches National Park skyrocketed to a record high of 1.8 million visitors in 2021, Canyonlands National Park saw a record high of 911,594, and Capitol Reef jumped from 981,038 in 2020 to 1.4 million visitors in 2021. The influx is something of a blessing and a curse, depending on the day. Tourism dollars boost local economies near natural resource areas, but the popularity of some places hints of a love so strong it can strangle a local community. As this phenomenon ripples across the West, researchers and instructors at the U are helping guide the way toward sustainable tourism, a term used to describe a symbiotic approach to saving humans and nature. 

It starts with education. The students on this U-Explore journey near Hanksville, Utah, are a good example of what that can look like. Two weeks ago, they gathered for the first time in a classroom for a pre-trip meeting where several of them sheepishly raised their hands when asked, “Who’s never been backpacking before?” And now, they are bustling around trying to keep their tents from blowing away, without a word of complaint. 

“Nature doesn’t care if you’re a doctor. It’s no respecter of persons, and there are high consequences if you don’t take care of yourself in the backcountry,” instructor April Ollivier MS’03 tells them. “I love that when I’m out here, it’s a matter of focusing on the basics, like, do I have adequate nutrition? Am I drinking enough water?” She pauses just as a huge gust of wind blows sand in all directions and three students run to grab their shelters. “And did I stake down my tent?"

EVEN DURING COVID LOCKDOWNS,

LOVING THE LAND

A campground scene at Steinaker State Park in Uintah County, Utah

The students haven’t seen another person outside of their group for at least a day. That was the point of venturing this far into the desert—the search for privacy. Still, they are willing to accept visitors, should they appear. 

“I think public lands are for the public,” says Maquira Brock, a junior majoring in parks, recreation, and tourism. “We come out here so we don’t see people, but they have every right to be here as well.” 

As Brock speaks, most of the class is sitting on the sand, perched next to a clear, bubbling river, just listening. Already they are becoming friends. 

Sharing outdoor experiences is an essential piece of sustainable tourism. Not only do visitors spend money when they are traveling—national park visitors in Utah spent an estimated $1,133 per travel party per stay in 2019, with an estimated statewide annual spend of more than $434 million outside of the parks, according to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the U—but they also develop a love and appreciation for the land that lends itself toward preservation. 

“I think we need people in our parks,” says Kelly Bricker, adjunct professor and former chair of the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism in the College of Health. “We need people to appreciate these places because the political will of keeping them—and establishing even more in the future—has to rely on the American people who value them in the first place. Without their support we won’t have these places in the future. This is one of the many benefits of getting people outside.”

A group of students bonded while backpacking as part of a U-Explore class

Bricker volunteers for the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), which was established in 2008 to provide baseline criteria for understanding sustainable tourism and how to pursue it. The GSTC endorses 41 criteria for management of destinations and provides a road map to help communities become better stewards of the places we inhabit. 

Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, embraced the idea of attracting visitors to Utah’s natural wonders when the office launched the wildly successful “Mighty Five” campaign in 2013. In the first year, 346,000 additional visits to the Beehive State were inspired by the campaign. After that, until 2015, the campaign was credited with bringing an annual average of about 500,000 additional visitors. As numbers continued to grow, the office changed strategies. 

“By 2017 we recognized that we were taking both credit and responsibility for the circumstances that had been created by this successful campaign,” Varela notes. Over time, the office has pivoted to the “Forever Mighty” campaign that encourages responsible travel, including doing more immersive, distributed and off-season travel, and always showing respect for fragile environments. It asks visitors to tread lightly and leave no trace, support the local economy, and respect the community. 

Still, in places like Park City, where tourism/business chamber head Jennifer Wesselhoff is implementing a sustainability plan, the question begs to be asked: How much is too much? Wesselhoff created the first sustainable tourism plan in Sedona, Arizona, before relocating to Utah in 2020. 

“The community started asking—and these questions are being asked in Southern Utah and Park City and all over the country—are we loving our community to death?” says Wesselhoff, president and CEO of the Park City Chamber of Commerce—Convention & Visitors Bureau. “What can we do to balance quality of the economy and quality of life for our residents, and protect our environment?”

A BLESSING AND A CURSE

U students got off the beaten path to explore sandstone slot canyons near Lake Powell.

A few hours into the students’ hike on the first day, the red canyon walls narrow and deepen to a pool with hip-deep green water. One by one, the group slides into the drink, wedging their feet between the rocks where there’s no ground to stand on. It is a monumental moment for those who have never traversed such terrain, and it gives them a sense of empowerment. 

“It’s fun to push your limits and surprise yourself with what you can do,” one student says. “I know it’s cliché to say, but nature is healing.”

The allure of a beautiful scene, coupled with the fact that one can’t help but feel special when immersed in something so spectacular, is part of the reason that visitation in Utah has exploded. In 2020, the state had 5.2 visitors per resident, more than Colorado or Arizona. Travel to Utah that year accounted for 1.9 percent of total domestic travel within the U.S., an increase in market share from 2019. By comparison, Nevada accounted for 2.2 percent of travel, Colorado had 3.3 percent, and Arizona had 3.9. But as millions flock to visit Utah’s natural wonders, the impact felt by the surrounding areas can be painful. 

“What we are seeing in these communities, like Moab, Utah, and Jackson, Wyoming, and Sandpoint, Idaho, is not just a degradation of the resource, but of the communities supporting those areas,” says Danya Rumore, director of the U’s Environmental Dispute Resolution Program and co-founder of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative. “When we think about sustainable tourism, we have to think about, what is the impact of tourism on not just the resource but the infrastructure that supports it? If we degrade the natural resource or the infrastructure, we have a problem.”

Amenity migrants—a term used to describe those who purchase homes based on their proximity to recreational opportunities—are part of population growth patterns that can stress housing availability and tax local resources beyond the impact of tourists. Utah’s population increased 17.6 percent from 2010 to 2020, the highest in the country, even as births in the state have decreased and deaths have increased. With a lack of affordable housing, employees in the tourism industry are increasingly living out of their cars and camping illegally, and businesses struggle to stay open because they can’t hire employees who don’t exist because they have nowhere to live. 

Park City, for one, also faces other day-to-day problems like traffic congestion, conflicts on trails, and overflow parking at trailheads in neighborhoods. 

In Moab, the city adopted a water conservation plan in response to data that shows its annual water consumption might already equal the recharge rate of its aquifer. It also built a new wastewater facility to handle the millions of gallons of bodily waste left by visitors every day, even though there are only a little more than 5,000 residents in the town. 

“The more reflective conversations we have with locals are along the lines of, ‘We just ended up here. We didn’t plan to be in this place,’ ” says Varela. “The grouchier conversations are, ‘Why are you sending people here? I want my community back.’ ”

STEPPING TOWARD SUSTAINABILITY

A lineup of vehicles outside Zion National Park in Washington County, Utah

On the last night of the trip, the students are laughing and talking underneath a brilliant half-moon and the light of a million stars. They already took turns teaching each other about the wilderness preservation system, leave no trace principles, hypothermia, flash floods, and what to do if you get bitten by a snake—all part of getting credit for the class—but now they’re just busting a gut over their favorite movies like they’ve been friends for years. 

“That’s what we want this course to be like,” says instructor Jenny Hawke, as she gestures at the group. “We want them to enjoy this experience, and we want them to take ownership of it and feel protective of the land.”

The base knowledge these students have gained is something akin to the new messaging Varela has started incorporating in her tourism strategy. The Utah Office of Tourism website features information on everything from how to poop in the outdoors to how to support local vendors, with a call for visitors to be responsible. Her hope is that communities find ways to work together for their long-term survival. Helper, for example, is a gateway community that’s molding itself into a family of artists and miners who formed a nonprofit organization to tell each other’s stories. 

“That gives a sense of what is possible when people sit down and start to think and imagine together,” Varela says. 

One of the most important things a community can do is think about their collective vision and work to preserve the most valued parts of their identity before the crowds come, says Rumore. Gateway communities can’t prevent or predict when or if they’ll be the next hot spot, but they can have a contingency plan, she says. The GNAR Initiative is working on understanding tourism and development trajectories in gateway communities to help inform communities’ local policy decisions. 

“People have a lot more in common than they think they do, but we aren’t having the right conversations,” says Rumore. “In Bears Ears it’s, ‘Make it a monument, don’t make it a monument.’ Whereas it could be, ‘What do we love about this area? What are all of the possible things we can do to protect the things that make it special?’ ”

THE POPULARITY OF SOME PLACES

Almost as soon as Wesselhoff arrived in Park City, she started taking a benchmark of what sustainable initiatives the city had and how the policies were being implemented. She started coordinating with various entities involved in managing the land, waste, transit, and trails. Using the criteria established by the GSTC as a guide, Wesselhoff asked locals, businesses, and visitors about their priorities. The members of the chamber of commerce told her that caring for the environment and their small town character was top of the list. 

“We have a tremendous opportunity to help influence visitor behavior when they are in our community—to be better trail users, to recycle, to use transit, and to be in better alignment with our values as a community,” says Wesselhoff.

She noted that over the years, Park City and Summit County have made strides toward a sustainable future, including working toward North America’s most ambitious climate goals, investing in electric bus fleets, a free transit system, and a bike share program, among other things. As she looks to the future, Wesselhoff is using the four pillars of the GSTC—sustainable management, socioeconomic impacts, cultural impacts, and environmental impacts—to develop the state’s first sustainable tourism plan of its kind. 

While finding the delicate balance between protecting nature and enjoying its benefits is likely to be a continuing challenge, Bricker says she is optimistic for the future. For the backpacking students who at the end of their trip lamented not knowing the wonders of this part of their world before, and for all those who have ventured outside, discovered the treasures of nature perhaps for the first time, and cannot wait to return, Bricker is encouraged that we’re in good hands. 

“I’m hopeful that these next generations behind us are going to be that much more aware, that much more concerned, and that much more proactive than we are today,” says Bricker. “That is what gives me a lot of hope.”

Amy Choate-Nielsen is the outgoing associate editor for Utah Magazine and the new communications manager for the Office of the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs.

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  1. Great and timely article. Solutions and future planning require much less “us vs. them” mindset and a broad collaboration of stakeholders with a future focus. Need more on this subject.
    Sustainable planning and design opportunities at a city and community scale are abundant. Natural resource management and tourism are integral parts of Utah’s future. Popular parks, monuments and public lands have been successfully advertised to the planet without commensurate planning to address the consequences. Utah natural resources and communities continue to be impacted by popularity and short-sighted planning. Regional availability of water and capacity to support development often takes a back seat to land use, zoning and proposed developments. Real estate in tourism-based communities is increasingly controlled by private or corporate entities focused on short term profit taking. This severely limits affordable housing projects for current and future residents which can permanently degrade a community’s quality of life. Most discouraging to live in a place where the future for young people is so bleak knowing it doesn’t have to be this way. Sustainable planning on a regional scale is a platform that can protect/preserve life in Utah and the southwest.

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