President Obama asked for our input on the future of “America’s Great Outdoors.” I went to a “listening session” in Salt Lake City in August, to offer my ideas–along with hundreds of other people–to the various federal dignitaries in attendance. We hope they listened to the wide variety of input.
Now, the deadline is upon us (September 6th) for written submissions. I urge all of you to send in your thoughts. I sent in mine this afternoon–finishing the writing on a friend’s porch in Boston, as Hurricane Earl approached. I tried hard to think about how to really snag the attention of those federal land managers who will be reading this. Here is what I said:
I live in Wallace Stegner’s Geography of Hope—but as I grow older, my beloved American West seems to be evolving into a Geography of Hostility. Here in my home state of Utah, when we speak of the proper use of our great outdoors we often descend so far into polarized screaming that we essentially disqualify ourselves from productive dialogue and allow the debate to move elsewhere. It’s clear that we must take back control of the conversation if we are ever to have a sense of real community. We must get everyone to the table. And once we are there, we can’t walk away.
Stegner decried “our headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment.” If we turn over the last remaining wilderness to unlimited energy development and a million off-road vehicles with free access to tens of millions of acres of wild country, we’ll get that world that Stegner feared, plagued by “the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste,” ruled by the principles of exploitation.
So I ask for the same strength from federal agencies that Stegner asked for fifty years ago in the “Wilderness Letter.” I ask for all of us to quit hollering at each other from spittle-flecked mouths and calm down and look for common ground.
My love of the land goes back to my earliest memories. My love of the land goes right back to my father.
My father is a 94-year-old geologist who worked for his entire career with the U.S. Geological Survey. Every summer, we left our home in Denver and headed west, renting a house near his mapping area. Every vacation, we visited national parks and monuments, where we walked the nature trails, read the interpretive booklets, and listened to naturalists tell stories. We didn’t camp. These weren’t wilderness experiences. We really were just tourists. But I grew up with the firm belief that park rangers were rock stars, my guides to the coolest places in the universe.
I grew up believing that Dad and his fellow geologists working away in their Department of Interior offices were the adults that a boy should choose to emulate. Though comfortable with the millions and billions in geologic time, these scientists spent their days in contact with the earth, collecting knife-sharp chunks of obsidian warmed by the sun.
I grew up assuming that civil servants did visionary work. In my twenties, I worked seasonally for the National Park Service, for the Forest Service, and for the Bureau of Land Management, and I was proud to do so.
I believe in public lands as our permanent common ground. The American people own these public lands. The federal agencies manage these lands for us, and only the agencies can truly lead us to the reconnection, restoration, and protection asked for by the president in his memorandum. Land management agency visionaries must feel free to act courageously, backed by good science and by the force of law. This will be difficult, but no one else can take the long view—past political expediency and the relentless pressures from those interested only in making a quick buck.
You—the federal land managers—are the grown-ups, and you have the ultimate responsibility to preserve biodiversity, protect wilderness, reverse global warming pollution, conserve working landscapes, facilitate the work of land trusts, and prohibit destructive development in our last open spaces. It’s a dauntingly huge job, but you must fight all of these battles. You must pressure Congress to pass strong legislation. No one else has your authority and powers of advocacy. But never forget that you have allies out here.
Like so many of my generation I have carried the catchphrases of the first Earth Day in 1970 in my catalogue of truths:
Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Aldo Leopold: “I’m glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
I grew up in Colorado and Idaho and Washington—always with mountains rimming my views, always with the sense that there were plenty of blank spots still on the map. I came of age in Utah and Colorado and Arizona—especially in the sensual redrock maze of the Canyonlands, and the deep stark wildness of the Sonoran Desert. I matured as a writer in New Mexico and Nevada—below the sacred mountains of Pueblo people and in the space and silence of the Great Basin Desert. Today, I’m astonished and thrilled to own land that borders proposed wilderness on BLM land in southern Utah’s Wayne County, just outside Capitol Reef National Park.
The West made me who I am.
I define my home by landscape as much as I do by family and friends. This is a gift, and I know it’s becoming more rare as the nation grows overwhelmingly urban. How do we pass this on? How can we, as parents, play effective matchmakers between our children and the earth? In my 1994 book, The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, I did my best to answer this crucial question:
None of us can predict or control the career or avocational choices of our children. All we can do is introduce, try to prevent prejudice, battle gender stereotypes, teach by the example of our own attention and wonder. All we can do is recite from the Scripture of maps and field guides. Give names to the mountains and rivers, give names to the trees. Give voice to the emotions that storms and tundra flowers, young bison and soaring ravens can pull from us.
As parents, we can take our children with us to the land. We can be there with them as they climb on rocks, play in streams and waves, dig in the rich soil of woods and gardens, putter and learn. Here, on the land, we learn from each other. Here, our children’s journey begins.
Fifty years ago, Wallace Stegner wrote his “Wilderness Letter” in response to a prompt much like this one. In 1960, Stegner sent his small masterpiece to David Pesonen of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission to address “the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself.” Seated at his desk in the hills above Palo Alto, Stegner imagined the view across his boyhood haunts in southern Utah’s Wayne County, ranging out from the family cabin at Fish Lake, from the Robbers Roost, from the Aquarius Plateau. He called these lands “the geography of hope.”
My own home in Wayne County looks out on the same view, the same geography, the same “lovely and terrible wilderness” (in Stegner’s words) that I have visited yearly since working as a seasonal ranger at Capitol Reef National Park 35 years ago. I described that view in my recent book, Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America:
Sunrise hits the top of the Cockscomb, a brilliant white-gold flare on the Navajo Sandstone cliff. I’m partial to the monumental, transcendent stripes before me: red Moenkopi ledges in the foreground, piñon-green hills and mesas midground, then the sea-monster ridge of the Cockscomb spotlit by shafts of sunlight from the Fresnel lens of moving clouds. The green-black mountain rises beyond these as backdrop and finally gives way to blue sky, with strokes of cloud swashed across the firmament.
And that’s just the view to the south.
Maybe it’s this predilection for stripes that has always made me so sympathetic to the landscape of Capitol Reef. The long, rolling cliff face of the reef, its monoclinal tilt eroded in hogbacks and ridges, color by color, formation by rock formation, runs across the horizon in what the Paiutes call a “sleeping rainbow” for a hundred-plus miles.
In the still cool air I write these thoughts in my journal as I listen to the ravens and Red-tailed Hawks that nest on the cliffs within a couple of hundred yards. I hear the croaks and cries when the adults flap off their nests to hunt and return to eggs and fledglings—generation to generation, here, sharing our ledges.
If, as Stegner wrote, wilderness defines the American character, what will it mean to be an American when we have destroyed the last wilderness?
If, as Stegner wrote, what will it mean to us as a wild species if “we drive the few remaining members of the other wild species into zoos or to extinction?”
In 1960, Stegner warned about “progess,” which had ceased to be an “unmixed blessing,” and had become, rather, a destroyer of spirit and a threat to our very existence. In 2010, “progress” continues to threaten us: with an accelerating climate crisis that will permanently alter the planet.
Many thanks to President Obama for asking the citizens of America for our feelings about this great land—at this time of flux and challenge and crisis. We have made considerable progress since 1960, and much of that progress came from a phenomenal sequence of laws in the 1960s and 1970s: the Wilderness Act, the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act. We must not weaken these visionary acts of legislation; indeed, we must use them to fight new threats to the global environment.
For, if anything has become more clear since 1960, America’s Great Outdoors is just one part of the Earth’s Great Outdoors. John Muir was right, everything really is connected. If America leads, the world pays attention. That was true when we invented national parks in the 1800s. It can be true again.
So I urge all of you with the power to make laws, to manage wilderness, and to effect change to do so with the sense that you are acting on behalf of future generations, not on behalf of the last oil company lobbyist or ATV advocate who came to your office.
Act on behalf of your grandchildren, on behalf of the last canyon treefrogs singing in potholes in Slickhorn Gulch along the San Juan River. Act on behalf of the 9 million acres of BLM wilderness remaining in Utah. On behalf of the condors we have brought back from extinction. On behalf of the farmers and ranchers who are looking for ways to say “Hell no!” to the real estate developers intent on subdividing our bottomlands. On behalf of the people and the land—not on behalf of the wealthy and the corporate.
I remain an optimist. Please do us proud.
With hope for the future, respectfully,