Imagine your small town makes half its annual income between spring break and Memorial Day weekend. Those dollars depend entirely on recreation. Now picture your community, usually bustling with more than a million people exploring nearby national parks, trails and rivers, eating in restaurants, hiring local guides and buying gear from small businesses, quiet as a ghost town. Like, actual tumbleweeds rolling through Main Street.
That’s what happened to Moab, Utah when the roughly 1.5 million people who show up every spring were told to stay away. The town of 5,000 residents has a small hospital with no intensive care unit, and to avoid overburdening the healthcare system, local officials closed businesses, hotels, and banned camping on nearby public lands. It helped flatten the curve but served a severe economic blow.
With an almost entirely recreation-based economy and its proximity to national parks, Moab is considered a gateway community, one of the many small cities and towns outside of significant natural amenities (think national parks, public lands, ski areas and scenic rivers). As you might expect, these are increasingly popular places to visit and live. Many are dealing with a variety of “big city” issues, including severe congestion, lack of affordable workforce housing, and concerns about sprawl. But nothing exposed the intrinsic vulnerability of these places more than COVID-19.
That’s where The Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative comes in. The non-profit is building a network of resources for gateway communities across the West, like Moab, Jackson Hole and Sun Valley. The GNAR Initiative helps these places grapple with rapid growth, land access, seasonal employment and housing, and more. The hope is to provide resources for communities that are looking to move from an extractive boom-and-bust economy like oil, gas, and mineral, to a potentially more sustainable recreation. Right now, the organization is focused on supporting these towns during the pandemic, but the ultimate goal is collecting data regarding public land use. As part of our $1 million COVID-19 relief commitment through our social impact and advocacy platform, the Explore Fund, we’re partnering with The GNAR Initiative to support these communities that make exploration possible. Grant funding is supporting the official launch of The GNAR Initiative—prior to this, all operations were covered by volunteer and part-time support.
The GNAR Initiative provides a forum where representatives of gateway communities can meet, share ideas, and identify immediate and high-priority needs that allows them to make more informed decisions as they respond to the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate its impact on the well-being of their residents and their local economies. The GNAR Initiative is also building a network by engaging elected officials, city and county planners, economic development and tourism specialists, and others from gateway communities in virtual listening sessions facilitated by faculty from Utah State University and the University of Utah. It’s like your Zoom happy hour, but with tangible productivity. People share experiences, work together to problem-solve, and clarify specific, high-priority needs.
Recent sessions have asked participants questions like, “What do you feel you and your community need right now to help you cope with and recover from COVID-19 and its impacts?” and “What can The GNAR Initiative do to be most helpful to you and your communities now and going forward?”
Through one GNAR listening session, Emily Friedman, a 24-year-old coordinator with the Zion Regional Collaborative, learned about a grant available through the CARES Act that her organization is eligible for.
“I wouldn’t have known about it if it hadn’t been for a GNAR supported one-on-one discussion with someone from the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation,” says Friedman. “Springdale is a template of a classic gateway community. It’s isolated but has incredible natural resources that draw in some 4 million people through a town of 600 residents. It’s comforting to know that a lot of other towns like Springdale are facing the same challenges. Other communities have tools they’re willing to share.”
Friedman is enrolled in a GNAR course this summer that brings together professionals from non-profits and government agencies to take an academic approach to strategizing about natural resources management.
Kaitlin Myers, a 26-year-old project manager for the City of Moab, also appreciated hearing other perspectives from gateway communities around the West. “The biggest takeaway was a conversation that sparked me to think about how one-industry economies, like ours in Moab, can diversify and become more resilient.”
For all gateway communities, a return to normalcy depends on a return to tourism and related revenue. By leveraging research, education and capacity building, The GNAR Initiative hopes to help these places not only recover from COVID-19 but also respond to planning and public policy challenges they face today and tomorrow. As an outdoor brand, we want to help gateway communities maintain the things that make them special places so they can again host exploration.