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A hot-tempered call for dialogue in the desert

John Colson
Title: Brave New West: Morphing Moab at the Speed of GreedAuthor: Jim StilesPublisher: University of Ariz. PressPrice: $19.95 (softcover)
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Jim Stiles is what one might call an angry optimist.He views the onslaught of recreation-based growth in his adopted hometown of Moab, Utah, as evidence that humanity is incapable of conducting itself reasonably when there is money to be made. But he is hopeful that perhaps this can change given sufficient illumination and honest, open dialogue.As editor of the Moab-based weekly newspaper, Canyon Country Zephyr, and now author of the book, “Brave New West,” Stiles is an experienced observer with a keen eye for detail and a voice tinged with irony and wit.

He is a transplant from the verdant hill country of Kentucky, a cultural and geographical relocation he accomplished nearly 30 years ago, shortly after graduating from the University of Kentucky.At that time, Moab was still a sleepy backwater dwelling on its memories of a uranium mining boom and its early ranching culture dating to the late 1800s. The invasion of lycra-clad, casually wealthy urban yuppies on mountain bikes, who have overrun the town in the past couple of decades, had not yet begun.Shortly after arriving, Stiles got a job as a ranger at the Arches National Monument, and soon became friends with his hero, Edward Abbey, who had held the same job at one time and had also written the bible of radical Western preservationists, “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” Reverential references to Abbey’s quirky, bombastic resistance against development, and to others of like minds, are peppered throughout the book.

Stiles’ ire is mostly vented toward the invasion of mountain bikers and the cultural, economic and philosophic underpinnings of the surge. He also laments the unintended results that he calls the “amenity economy” – an economy based on service to the recreation industry and a related housing boom that he feels is just as destructive as mining and ranching ever were.He admits that there is no real “bad guy” in the battles between wildlife conservation and resource exploitation, or open space preservation and suburbanization. He’s equally derisive about the mining- and ranching-based economy and the one based on recreation. And he lampoons hypocritical environmentalists as much as miners and ranchers, while calling for immediate dialogue among the opposing camps to prevent the destruction of a delicate and beloved ecosphere.