The Moab area offers a variety of scenic landscapes that draw many visitors each year. Photo credit: Aubin Douglas.

by Andy Witt, Aubin Douglas, and Mary Oliver


Southeastern Utah is an iconic landscape with its rust-colored rock formations, bright blue sky, and meandering riverscape cut by the Colorado River. Due to the highly successful “Mighty Five” marketing campaign, millions of tourists flock to the region every year to experience two of the five national parks Utah has to offer. While this seasonal financial influx is an important stimulus for the local economy, it leaves local residents and businesses reeling once the season ends, as this tourist-dependent economy is service-based.

Our study area focuses on the cities of Moab and Castle Valley and the surrounding region, including Arches National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, parts of Canyonlands National Park, the Manti-La Sal National Forest, and both San Juan and Grand Counties. The local population is around 5,200, though that can increase to 20,000 overnight during peak tourist season. Arches National Park alone sees over 1.5 millions visitors each year, most of them between May and September.

This project’s study area encompasses Interstate-70, the municipalities of Moab and Castle Valley, portions of Grand and San Juan Counties, Dead Horse Point State Park, and Arches National Park, and the northeast corner of Canyonlands National Park. Map created by Andy Witt.

In fall of 2016, the Utah State University bioregional planning team was invited to complete an assessment of the region’s varying land uses, and to generate plausible scenarios for local planners and decision-makers to use in future management plans. One of the goals laid out in the 2012 Grand County General Plan was to create a “diverse, prosperous, and sustainable economy” to relieve the economic whiplash from the seasonal nature of tourism. As a team, we completed site visits, talked with local stakeholders, and assessed the structure and function of our study area. We used county master and general plans, and other relevant documents, such as the 2016 Area Sector Analysis Program (ASAP) Report for the city of Moab, to guide our investigations and assessments of the main industries, land uses, and resources of the region.

Ultimately, we identified 12 biophysical and socio-economic systems that were integral to the area: Public Safety, Scenic Quality, Vegetation, Cultural/Historical Sites, Water Resources, Wildlife, Resource Extraction, Housing Development, Commercial/Industrial Development, Recreation, Grazing, and Solar Energy Development. The former six systems became our Assessment Models, or identified areas containing vulnerable resources to be protected for future generations. The latter six systems became our Allocation Models, or identified areas that are suitable for resource or land use development and expansion. These models were later used to evaluate how the four future scenarios we generated would impact the biophysical and socio-economic systems in the region.


This project utilized the Bioregional Planning Process, a system of planning developed by Richard Toth, which considers how biophysical, socio-cultural, and economic land use patterns influence each other and are used to inform future plans and development. “The Bioregional Planning Program investigates how biophysical systems influence settlement and culture, and, inversely, how settlement and culture shape biophysical systems” (Toth, 1974).

Bioregional planning emerged from the concepts of landscape-level planning found in Ian McHarg’s 1969 publication, “Design with Nature.” It merges theories of ecosystem science, landscape ecology, and design theory, to create a holistic planning practice that addresses complex land-use issues. This process provided a way to assess, not only the suitability of various types of land-use, but also how human development and ecological systems overlap and interact. Balancing these systems is especially crucial in the Moab area, as the regional economy relies on both commerce and recreation and is driven by local natural resources.

The design approach for this project follows common land planning protocols, first determining a site inventory, then performing site analysis and mapping using GIS data, to ultimately determine future development scenarios (Toth, 1974). The bioregional planning team divided this process into several key components, 1) pre-analysis, 2) regional analysis, 3) biophysical assessment modeling, 4) socio-economic allocation modeling, and finally, 5) developing future scenarios.

This process is highlighted in Figure 3.

The bioregional process considers how natural and socio-economic systems connect and influence each other. This encompasses all systems, integrating planning for communities and their encompassing landscapes.

a. Pre-Analysis:

Site visits and stakeholder meetings provided an overview of the study area. Local knowledge and experience clarified what people most valued about the region. A Geodesign planning workshop with community stakeholders, hosted by Dr. Carl Steinitz, also helped bring attention to pertinent regional issues and projects that would potentially be implemented in the community. Coupled with reviewing relevant case studies, the bioregional planning team developed an understanding of the issues in southeastern Utah.

b. Regional Analysis:

With a clear objective identified from the pre-analysis, we assembled an inventory of regional biophysical features, and socio-economic features. The function and structure of each system were investigated to gain insight into the history and dynamics of the region.

c. Land Use Allocation:

Using the regional socio-economic inventory, land use allocation models were created to highlight the spatial distribution of human development and land uses. Clarified through the function and structure research, each socio-economic system was modeled to identify suitable areas for the expansion of various land uses.

d. Biophysical Assessment:

Using the regional biophysical inventory, assessment models were created to highlight the spatial distributions of vital natural resources. Clarified through the function and structure research, each biophysical system was modeled to identify critical areas for protection.

e. Developing Future Scenarios:

As a culmination of the previous steps, local values were incorporated into several future scenarios, devised to foresee the future of southeastern Utah. Using the biophysical assessment models and land use allocation models as building blocks, future scenarios were developed to visualize spatial changes across the landscape when specific planning trajectories were extrapolated to 2040. These scenarios were formed by combining differing values of the people with varying degrees of development upon the landscape. Finally, recommendations were made as to how each possible future may come to fruition. The bioregional team presented this information as guidance to local and regional planners to guide their decisions and help them realize the community’s vision for the future of the region.

Alternative Futures

Four alternative futures were designed to highlight and embody an important characteristic of southeastern Utah. Each future highlights distinct advantages and disadvantages between contrasting planning priorities. The futures serve to illuminate possibilities and consequences of potential future actions, and were developed based on a matrix of favoring locals vs. tourists, and land conservation vs. land development.

Figure 4

The Business as Usual scenario was our relative baseline future, located near the center of our matrix. With the current trends, we expect more commercial/industrial and housing developments along major corridors, such as I-70 in the northern end of our study area, and Highway 121 on the eastern side, leading into Moab and Castle Valley. We also expect greater development out of Moab south into Spanish Valley, replacing much of the current agricultural resources in the region.

The Iconic Landscapes scenario favors the locals and conservation of natural resources over economic development or seasonal tourists. This scenario focuses on conserving natural amenities in the area, such as viewsheds, water resources, and local flora and fauna habitat for future generations. Much of the development is restricted around areas already developed (Moab, Castle Valley, Crescent Junction, etc.) and restricts the expansion of extractive industries in the area.

The Economic Diversity scenario favors the wellbeing of locals over tourists, and economic development over conservation. This scenario focuses on diversifying the local economy to alleviate the seasonal “boom-and-bust” tourism-driven economy. While recreation is maintained as an important facet of the economy, other industries, such as grazing, extraction of natural resources, agriculture, solar power, and light manufacturing provide jobs and stability for local residents and businesses. Housing and commercial/industrial developments are expanded along major highways and around current developed areas.

The Recreation & Amenities scenario caters to tourists more so than locals, and conservation over diversified economic development. In this future, recreational opportunities for both locals and tourists are greatly expanded to address and support the ever-growing number of tourists to the region. Extractive industries are restricted to remote areas, and commercial areas are developed along major roads and around Moab and Castle Valley to accommodate the expanding tourism industry.

Upon evaluation of each future, several trends were uncovered; most notably, unregulated development will likely negatively impact the local visual resources, water resources, cultural/historical resources, wildlife, and vegetation, all of which are elements of the region that make it an attractive place to live and visit. The bioregional planning team recommended maintaining the natural characteristics of the region while offering measures to diversify the economy to reduce workforce fluctuations driven by the seasonal tourist-based economy.

One possibility of economic diversity may stem from the development of the Utah State University-Moab campus, which would offer opportunities for additional industries within Moab. The team also identified water conservation as an essential issue for southeastern Utah throughout the coming decades. Measures to decrease water waste are important for the arid region, especially where tourists have a large impact on water use. Implementation of grey water infrastructure and policies, especially in commercial areas, present opportunities to reduce water waste. Finally, an officially designated campground was recommended between the western edge of Arches National Park and the nearby highway to reduce the current trend of unregulated camping and land degradation adjacent to the park. Such a campground would generate revenue for Utah, as well as alleviate overflow traffic from Arches National Park.

Alternative future development is often the most helpful when there is a large amount of uncertainty, and control is low in a region. The bioregional team offered local stakeholders four plausible scenarios for the future of their region to help decision-makers navigate uncertainty and realize their ideal planning goals for 2040.

Suggested Resources

Link to the full report: USU - Digital Commons - BRP Report 2017


  • McHarg, I.L. 1969. Design With Nature. Published for the American Museum of Natural History.

  • Toth, R.E. 1974. A Planning and Design Methodology. Department of Landscape Architecture, U.S.U. Unpublished manuscript. Presented at University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1975.

The authors are current and previous graduate students at Utah State University (USU) who have participated in the Bioregional Planning Program in the Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Department. Andy Witt holds a BS in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, and a BA in Environmental Studies from the University of Colorado and completed a Master of Watershed Science in the College of Natural Resources in May 2018. Aubin Douglas received a BA in Environmental Studies from the University of Colorado and completed her Master of Science in Bioregional Planning in July 2018, and is working toward completing a second MS in Ecology through Watershed Sciences at Utah State University. Mary Oliver received a BA in Dance from University of Utah, and completed her Master of Science in Bioregional Planning and Master of Landscape Architecture degrees at Utah State University in May 2018. This team was led by Barty Warren-Kretzschmar, past director of the Bioregional Planning Program at USU, now on faculty at Leibniz Universität in Hannover, Germany.

Published in November 2018