The normally clear skies over St. George, Utah, turned black and rained on the morning of the second annual Moe’s Valley clean-up and comp, soaking the sandstone boulders. The Moe’s Valley parking lot, packed with climbers and campers the previous night, emptied by 10 a.m., but a handful of stalwarts stayed to collect trash with Tyler Webb, who organized the event. They sucked up thousands of nails with a huge magnet, shoveled broken glass into cardboard boxes and rounded up stray beer cans and granola-bar wrappers.
The comp/clean-up was rescheduled for the following Saturday, a flawless day with dry boulders but few attendees. Nevertheless, the clean-up continued, and the comp went until dark.
“We accomplished our mission,” Webb said. “We got all the cleaning done, and built trails to minimize erosion and preserve the cryptobiotic soil.”
Webb, who wrote the new Moe’s Valley guidebook, organized the comp/clean-up because he felt responsible for the area’s booming popularity.
“More out-of-towners are showing up,” Webb said. “I wanted to get proactive about the area.”
Back in the early 1990s, when the St. George local Todd Perkins discovered the area, it wasn’t even called Moe’s Valley yet. It was just a beige bajada filled with beige boulders on the edge of St. George, where the desert slopes to the Virgin River Gorge (VRG) and eventually Las Vegas, 100 miles to the west.
Perkins was 12 when his family moved to the area. He and his brothers built forts there, spied great horned owls, found arrowheads below petroglyphs and monkeyed around on the sandstone boulders.
“You could spend all day there and never see another person,” Perkins says.
Back then, bouldering hadn’t caught on and was still just practice for the taller stuff. Lost in the shadow of places like Zion and the VRG, the anonymous boulders became the secret training ground for climbers in southern Utah.
Ten years later, in the early 2000s, some local climber kids rediscovered the area, and dubbed it Moe’s Valley, a play on the famous Joe’s Valley four hours to the north. They shot guns, drove ATVs and splattered the boulders with paintballs, leaving colorful splashes on the cryptobiotic soil. The apparent emptiness of the desert attracted a variety of disorganized destruction.
“It was kind of a free-for-all,” says Isaac Caldiero, Moe’s Valley’s main developer.
Though climbers in the know had quietly bouldered in the area for nearly 20 years, it wasn’t until 1998 that Caldiero and Seth Giles began to shape the area into a true destination.
They scoured the Shinarump Conglomerate blocks (composed of a mixed layer of sand, silt, pebbles and petrified wood deposited by ancient river floods), cleared landings and established hundreds of problems.
“Moe’s has never been mainstream, and that’s kinda been the coolest thing about it,” says Caldiero, who’s been climbing at Moe’s for 13 years. “And there’s still a lot of potential. In the past few months, I’ve put up three new V11s, a new V12 and I’m working on a V13 project.”
Dave Graham added his touch to Moe’s, establishing more than 10 problems, including area classics like Booka Booka Booka (V13) and Escape Artist (V12).
“Moe’s is one of the most beautiful places in Utah,” says Graham. “You go in that canyon, and you’re in this Mars-scape. It’s an oasis from the modern Western world, and it’s really worth preserving.”
But as Moe’s Valley gained popularity, rumors circulated that the boulders were on private property, and access fears arose.
“In Utah, it’s easy to assume anything without a house or fence around it is public land,” says another local climber, Todd Goss. “In this case that was wrong.”
The State Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) is an agency that manages land Congress gave to Utah at statehood in 1896. The organization was founded in 1994. “SITLA land is tantamount to private property,” says Goss. “So essentially we were bouldering on someone’s land.” SITLA’s mission is to generate cash for Utah public schools, by selling and leasing that land. So far, SITLA has sold about half of its original 7,475,297 acres, and currently owns about seven percent of Utah. Since roughly 70 percent of Utah is federal land and only 20 percent is private, SITLA is basically the state’s only source of marketable real estate.
SITLA’s mandate is, according to the official mission statement, to “manage revenues generated from the lands in the most prudent and profitable manner possible.” That means development—oil, natural gas, minerals or private real estate—not preserving rocks for climbers.
To climbers, the mention of SITLA, which has a money-hungry, land-wrecking reputation, portended instant death to bouldering at Moe’s, with its million-dollar views of the Utah desert just under a mile from town. Climbers speculated that any day SITLA would bulldoze Moe’s Valley for a new housing development.
Things got ugly around 2005, when a series of fiery meetings between climbers and SITLA ensued. Todd Goss, who was the main point of contact between SITLA and climbers, tried to organize user groups to stand up for access. “Todd was good to blow the whistle,” Kyle Pasley said. “It was like, ‘Let’s take a time out and talk to each other,’ which prevented us from going down a road that was argumentative, and not healthy. You wish that all land debates could go like this did.”
Between 2005 and 2008, tensions rose along with land values in St. George, which was exponentially expanding to accommodate second homes, retirees and a young, fast-growing population.
Then the economy crashed. Land values, at an all-time high, plummeted. The threat of development faded, and SITLA got a new director, Kyle Pasley.
SITLA did a 180, and Pasley showed each Moe’s Valley user group (climbers, mountain bikers and hikers) a blank map. He gave them pencils to mark the areas they wanted to preserve.
“Because of the topography, it’s not property that’s conducive to a lot of development,” Pasley says. “So we look at the recreational uses as an amenity to the property—a selling point.”
SITLA still hopes to build a housing development at Moe’s Valley, but the boulders, hiking and mountain-biking trails will be annexed by the city and preserved as a recreational nature park, adding value to any homes built in the area.
“There are ways to skin the cat that make it a win-win for everybody,” Pasley says.
According to Pasley, the climbing community has been excellent to work with.
“They’ve also been very good stewards of the land," he says. "They help keep it pristine, with clean-up days, which of course we like.”
Tyler Webb plans to hold next year’s comp/clean-up a few weeks earlier, in hopes of better weather. He’s also working to get an info kiosk and a PortaPotty on site. In the meantime, a growing number of climbers fills the parking lot at Moe’s Valley every weekend.
Caldiero hopes the increased crowds will mean more development—of the climber kind. “It’s just a matter of time,” Caldiero says. “There are a few thousand boulders out there. Maybe 20 percent has been established. If 10 people who were motivated to develop came through, you’d have 200 new problems in two days. There’s endless potential.”
Caroline Treadway is a freelance journalist living in Boulder, Colorado. She currently blogs for venturethere.com/USA Today.