Oh, the irony
New Edward Abbey-themed housing development in Moab is raising eyebrows
A local developer in Moab has broken ground on an Edward Abbey-themed subdivision, with street names paying homage to the iconic environmentalist’s works. But now, friends of Abbey say, that for a man who vehemently opposed new development and roads his entire life, having a subdivision named after him certainly is at odds with his legacy.
“Ed would spin many times in his grave,” Jack Loeffler, an author and longtime friend of Abbey, said.
The development – called the “Abbey” subdivision – will feature about 80 new housing units on an estimated 22 acres within Moab city limits. It is located on the southeast side of town near the Mill Creek North Fork trailhead.
The housing project will also feature Abbey-specific street names, like “Monkey Wrench Way” (named after Abbey’s seminal book that follows a group of eco-saboteurs against encroaching development); “Hayduke Court” (named after one of the leaders of the gang who we find early on in the book planting explosives at Glen Canyon Dam); and, the no-frills “Edward Lane.”
For the developer’s part, Mike Bynum, a Moab native who is highly involved in the local business community, said the decision to use Abbey themes was made years ago as an homage to the author. Especially since Abbey, in a roundabout way, put Moab on the map with his formative book, “Desert Solitaire,” chronicling his time as a park ranger at Arches National Park in the 1950s.
But for longtime friends and fellow writers, it’s not so much about the housing project itself. It’s about how tone deaf it is to use Abbey’s work – which was rooted in the ideology of anti-development and pro-wilderness – as a theme for a new subdivision. Just take, for instance, a few of his closest friends’ initial and unprompted responses when learning of it:
“Jesus Christ,” Doug Peacock, a friend of Abbey’s since 1975 and whom the character Hayduke was based on, said. “That’s a goddamn shame.”
“Oh my god,” Art Goodtimes, a fellow writer who met Abbey in the early 1980s, said. “Oh my god.”
“I think,” Andy Nettell, former owner of Back of Beyond Books in Moab, said, “it will become a laughingstock within the community when the signs actually do come up.”
Wrench in the plans
Abbey was an incredibly popular author and environmentalist known for his advocacy of wilderness preservation and his writings on the American Southwest. Though he shied away from the term “nature writer,” many dubbed him the “Thoreau of the American West.”
After publication of “Monkey Wrench Gang” in 1975, Abbey’s work was adopted by the more radical elements in the environmental movement. In fact, many believe his works inspired the creation of EarthFirst!, a radical environmental group known for its acts of civil disobedience. “Monkey Wrench Gang,” for instance, inspired the term “monkeywrenching,” which refers to acts of sabotage or nonviolent disruption aimed at hindering environmentally destructive activities.
Abbey, it should be noted, never officially joined EarthFirst! but did have close ties with members and wrote for its publications. Blowing up Glen Canyon Dam, after all, was the plot of the “Monkey Wrench Gang.” Still, no evidence has ever surfaced that Abbey engaged in monkeywrenching.
By reading his work, one can quickly surmise Abbey, who died in 1989 at the age of 62, would not have loved a development named after him. Abbey spoke outwardly about the overdevelopment of the West and loss of wild places, and how losing a connection with nature would contribute to the fall of civilization.
And, fortunately, we have decades of his writing, so let’s hear it from the man himself:
“(Developers) cannot see that growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness, that Phoenix and Albuquerque will not be better cities to live in when their populations are double again and again. They would never understand that an economic system which can only expand or expire must be false to all that is human.”
Bynum, the developer of the Abbey subdivision, was not made available for an interview. But his business associate, Joel Linares, said Bynum was born and raised in Moab and is a huge fan of Abbey’s work. Years ago, when planning the new housing development, Bynum thought using Abbey’s name, book titles and characters was a way of honoring his legacy.
“Mike is a big fan, and this isn’t a marketing gimmick,” Linares said. “I don’t think he thought it through to that level (that it would dishonor Abbey’s legacy). In his mind, he’s honoring Abbey.”
Though the subdivision has been in the planning stages for years, the developer officially submitted an application in 2019. After years of public review, the project was approved unanimously in spring 2022 and recently broke ground.
Linares noted that Moab is experiencing a housing crisis, and the neighborhood will add an estimated 80 new units. While the Abbey subdivision does not have an affordable housing component, Linares said Bynum’s other projects do.
“It’s not a major development like a dam,” Linares said. “It’s housing, and everyone needs a place to live. Not to mention Moab has a housing crisis.”
Indeed, Moab, like most popular resort destinations, is feeling the pinch of a lack of available housing on top of record numbers of people moving in, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that sent droves of urban dwellers into rural areas.
Abbey’s friends acknowledged the need for housing in Moab, as well as the fact the development is located within city limits, not the wilderness. Still – to use Abbey, of all people, as the theme of a new development is a gross injustice to his legacy, friends say.
Loeffler, who lives in Durango, met Abbey in 1962 at a bar in Santa Fe, and they became lifelong friends. Loeffler in 2003 published “Adventures with Ed: A Portrait of Abbey,” chronicling Abbey’s life and their friendship. So, it’s probably safe to say he knows how Abbey would react to a development named after him.
“It would result in an anger you wouldn’t want to see,” Loeffler said. “He would hate it; he would totally hate it.”
Peacock, who was contacted last week at Glacier National Park, reiterated much of the same. Peacock has praised Abbey’s writing as “eloquent, angry, poetic, crude and funny as hell.” He also had a few choice words about the development.
“Ed hated that kind of sh*t, and so do I,” Peacock said. “It’s insane.”
Art Goodtimes, who worked as poetry editor for EarthFirst! in the 1990s, said he had many dealings with Abbey over the years. He said it’s a “strange cultural appropriation to put someone who was dedicated against development as the theme for a new development.”
“It’s an odd choice,” Goodtimes said. “Abbey would have been furious.”
Nettell said this isn’t the first time in Moab a development has used Abbey’s nomenclature, pointing to a smaller neighborhood, Pack Creek Ranch, outside Moab. The difference there, however, is that Abbey used to own land there, which is now owned by one of his closest friends, Ken Sleight, another “Monkey Wrench Gang” character, Nettell said.
“The developers (of the Abbey subdivision) are looking to maximize profit, that’s what developers do, I get it,” he said. “And you know, to some extent, Abbey’s responsible for some of the popularity of this area and driving some of the problems we see today. It’s an irony.”
So, is all this even legal? The short answer – it’s murky.
The book rights to “Desert Solitaire’’ and “Monkey Wrench Gang’’ are owned by Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins Publishers, respectively. Representatives for both those companies said this issue would actually fall to the owner of the estate.
It’s believed by his friends that Abbey’s estate is owned by his wife, Clarke Abbey, who did not respond to requests for comment on this story. It also doesn’t appear Clarke submitted any comments during the project review process.
Carl Hjort, a leading intellectual property lawyer based in Denver, said without knowing the terms of the estate, it’s hard to say if the developer would need legal permission to use Abbey’s name, book titles and characters.
“It’s really hard to say without knowing the scope he or the estate put in place, and whether there would be a claim to stop (use of the names),” Hjort said.
Linares said Abbey’s estate was not consulted when naming the subdivision. However, he did say the developers are open to changing the theme, if there’s an issue.
“If it’s causing heartburn for members of his estate, we’re happy to have that conversation,” he said.
It’s unclear if Abbey’s estate does have an issue. But for close friends, it would be safe to say the thought of an Abbey-themed neighborhood in his most beloved part of the country would cause the grizzled author more than heartburn.
“This is absolutely the antithesis of what he was about, and in the worst possible taste,” Loeffler said. “I can’t speak for Ed, but I knew him really well, and he would hate this and fight it tooth and nail.”