Don’t put too many eggs in the recreation basket

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The astonishing downturn in the price of oil over recent months has had far-reaching consequences. One of those has been to give urgency to previously lackadaisical discussions in Montezuma County about finding “something” to drive the local economy beyond oil and gas extraction – mainly carbon-dioxide drilling by Kinder Morgan, the county’s largest taxpayer.

The demand for local CO2, you see, is closely tied to the price of oil, as the gas is used to pump additional black ooze from played-out wells in Texas. When oil declines in value, CO2-drilling and production decreases here, and county tax revenues decline.

County leaders have, commendably, been quick to see the cloud on the horizon and are already investigating a number of economic-development alternatives.

We’d like to urge a little caution.

In the zeal to find alternatives to oil and gas, leaders need to think hard about every possibility, since each likely has a down side. That doesn’t mean good ideas shouldn’t be pursued, only that drawbacks should be considered thoroughly to make sure they don’t outweigh the benefits.

Take recreation, for example, which is perennially touted as the answer to keeping the local economy afloat. And certainly Montezuma County has myriad delights to offer visitors.

The recent announcement that a proposed Cortez-to-Mancos recreational trail made it onto the list of Colorado’s 16 top-priority trail projects in 2016 is good news. It puts the “Paths to Mesa Verde” in a solid position to snag some of the grant funding available for such routes. This trail has been talked about for years, but only recently did the county become enthusiastic about working with Cortez, Mancos, Mesa Verde National Park, and the Colorado Department of Transportation to make it a reality.

We think the trail will be a tremendous asset, make no mistake. But it will be a costly project. $25 million is the ballpark figure being tossed around for completing the entire trail (a very rough estimate, as the specific route hasn’t even been decided yet, nor whether it will be a hard surface, soft surface, or both). Clearly the trail will have to be completed in stages. It isn’t going to happen in a hurry. And there are many questions to be answered about who will pay for maintenance, snow removal, weed control, the picking-up of horse manure and dog poop, and so on.

At a work session in January, the county Planning and Zoning Commission was quick to grasp these potential problems and to note that – because Montezuma County does not have a sales tax – it has no way to directly benefit from increased visitation even if more people do come here to travel the new trail. Yet the county would likely be expected to shoulder much of the burden of maintenance. Where will the money come from? That still has to be decided.

Local leaders are eager to see more tourism and we agree it would be beneficial – within reason. P&Z has spoken admiringly of Moab, Utah, and how at peak season it takes half an hour to drive across town, no one can get a seat at a restaurant, and all the motels are full. We aren’t sure locals want to see our area become quite like that. Industrial recreation has plenty of negative impacts on public lands and quality of life, and there are many folks who believe Moab has sold its soul for a mess of pottage.

Furthermore, jobs in recreation tend to be seasonal and low-paying. People say they want their children to be able to stay in Montezuma County and raise their families here. They aren’t likely to be able to do that waitressing or working in a gift shop. Recreation-industry jobs don’t bring prosperity, but they do create a huge need for affordable housing.

P&Z talked about developing and aggressively promoting more trails for equestrians, ATV riders, motorcyclists. (Predictably, they didn’t say much about hikers, because no one cares about them; they don’t use a lot of gear nor spend much money.) One suggestion was designating scenic routes for motorcyclists through McElmo Canyon and along county roads. That makes sense from an economic standpoint — bikers are good folks and do tend to spend money — but some local residents might be dismayed to suddenly be put on a “motorcycle route,” with hordes of Harleys roaring by their homes day and night.

And, remember, recreation is not altogether reliable. It is affected by international events, weather, wildfires, disease outbreaks (remember hantavirus?) and even, sadly, crime and terrorism.

P&Z suggested other ideas for economic development, one of which was developing industrial hemp, the non-intoxicating cousin to cannabis. We definitely like that idea, but it has problems, too. Despite the fact that marijuana is allowed in states such as Colorado and Washington, the conflict between federal and state law over cannabis has not been resolved, and hemp is caught up in that limbo. A new conservative president might reverse the Obama administration’s policy and crack down on states with legal pot, and that could affect the status of hemp as well. (Why isn’t anyone asking the candidates about this?)

One of the best things anyone can do to improve the local economy is invest in infrastructure and amenities. The county commissioners are wise to look toward making high-speed internet available in all corners of the county. A tentatively proposed solar farm (still in the discussion stage) is another idea well worth investigating.

Voters’ recent decisions to build a new high school in Cortez and expand the hospital will have long-term benefits, because such improvements draw new residents and help those already here.

It is to the commissioners’ credit that they are moving quickly to look at economic-development options beyond drilling, and it appears they will get some good advice from P&Z.

We just hope they won’t move too quickly in seizing upon any one alternative – particularly recreation – as the Next Great Thing. Consider the ramifications of each option, don’t assume anything is an unmitigated benefit, and most of all diversify, so that we never find ourselves again at the mercy of a one-product economy – like the banana republics of yore.

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