Falling in Love with the Land

I was delighted to receive the annual Ward Roylance Award from Torrey’s arts organization, The Entrada Institute, last night.  My very cool slate “trophy” says: “To Stephen Trimble, for his contributions to increasing appreciation and understanding of the Colorado Plateau.”  If anything describes a major theme of my work, that’s it.

Here is what I said to the warm and receptive audience of Canyon Country aficionados who gathered at Westminster College in Salt Lake City for the evening event:


I am immensely gratified to receive this award from Entrada—precious acknowledgement from my friends and neighbors. I have taken a stand in the world on a piece of ground that I love and that I will ferociously protect. I’m honored that you all have seen fit to verify that this is a worthy choice.  And I’m especially humbled to be in the company of the other Roylance winners, especially our wise elders of the Canyon Country, Katie Lee, Ken Sleight, and Doug Snow.

I’m old now, too, but I am just a tad too young to have intersected the Canyon Country as these elders saw the place. My first visit to Capitol Reef for a road trip with my parents brought us from Denver in 1963 when I was in junior high, just one year after the highway was paved down the Fremont River. I barely missed driving through Capitol Gorge when it was the main state highway across south-central Utah. I missed seeing Fruita before the Park made that controversial decision to tear down most of the old village.

I went off to college in 1968 and started reading the Sierra Club Bulletin and looking at Eliot Porter’s books of photographs.  I learned about the loss of Glen Canyon for the first time, again a little late—five years too late to drop everything and go float Glen Canyon with my buddies before the reservoir drowned Eden.  We took a lot of trips to the canyons, my friends and I, but the rising waters of Lake Powell had already limited the number of canyons we could visit.

I read Desert Solitaire when I was a senior in college, just three years after its publication.  Within another two years, I was a park ranger at Arches myself.  In my several years as a seasonal ranger, I tried and tried to get a job in Alaska or in the North Cascades.  I loved the canyons, but I was a mountaineer, and living close to those big mountains was my dream.

In 1975, my last year as a seasonal, I had two job offers, one as a fee-collecting campground ranger at Denali, a tedious job I seriously considered as a way to get my foot in the door in Alaska.  The other offer came from Capitol Reef, a naturalist job combined with backcountry photography and the assignment to write a trail guide for Hickman Bridge.  I took the job at Capitol Reef; I still haven’t been to Alaska.  Clearly a fateful decision.

When I drove my 1962 Dodge Dart along Highway 24 thirty-five years ago to begin my Capitol Reef ranger job, I had never hiked in the park.  I’d only driven through a couple of times.  I remember looking out the window at the Morrison badlands on the east flank of the Waterpocket Fold and saying out loud—“Purple rocks!  Look at those purple rocks!”

I was still pretty naïve.  The first time I camped at Cedar Mesa campground, I slept on a picnic table because I was afraid of scorpions.  But I quickly learned to love this remarkable country, not to fear it.

And here I am today, with a home in Wayne County and an absolute certainty that the inner Canyonlands—the Colorado River basin between Torrey and Grand Junction, between Green River and Lees Ferry—is my spiritual homeland.  When Ed Abbey and Philip Hyde pondered a name for their book about this country in 1971, they knew that title had to be Slickrock.  That’s the word for this home of ours.  Sensual, sculptural, spiritual slickrock.

Each week when my days off from my park ranger job came around, I made a pilgrimage over the mountain.  Larry Davis, the ranger at Anasazi State Park in Boulder, who won the Roylance Award ten years ago, told me about Upper Calf Creek Falls—and he made me swear to tell no one about the place.  I didn’t.  But we couldn’t keep the secret, as you’ll see when you go there today or when you check out the shelf of guidebooks at Robbers Roost.

I would drive the dirt road over Boulder Mountain, hike down into Upper Calf Creek, set up camp on the banks of the stream, alone—always alone—and wander up and down Calf Creek with my camera.  I grew up in that canyon, as a naturalist and as a photographer.

At the end of my weekend, I’d drive home over the Burr Trail and Notom Road—also dirt but perfectly passable to my old family sedan—completing my weekly loop.  The pictures I took along the way turned up in my slide shows at the park campground, and, later, in my books, in guidebooks—and, for one cluster of yellow sego lilies I photographed at Bitter Creek Divide, on a U.S. postage stamp.

For one of my rangerly duties, once a week I led a car caravan into the South District, down Notom Road and up the Burr Trail to the western park boundary, where I ate lunch with my group of adventurous visitors, looked out over the Henry Mountains, and where I turned people loose on their own.  Travelers easily accompanied me in sedans, station wagons, compacts—some even pulling small trailers.  The families who went along on this interpretive experience took obvious delight in this risky back road trip on the fringes of the largest swath of wild country left in southern Utah, a surviving fragment of the huge 7,000-square-mile Escalante National Park proposed and nearly established in the 1930s.  I vividly remember their joy, the sparkle in their eyes, as they discovered just how easy and exhilarating a trip into “blue highway” country could be.  Now, that same spot at the top of the Burr Trail is the entryway into the vast Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  What a remarkable act of conservation!

I kept going back to Capitol Reef, to Wayne County.  Over and over, year after year.  When I went to grad school in Tucson, I drove hundreds of miles out of my way when I visited my family in Denver so that I could stop at the Caineville Trading Post and order a machaca burrito.

When I got married and moved to Salt Lake City, I continued to visit, with my wife, Joanne Slotnik, and then with our kids, Dory and Jake.  We camped and we stayed at the Teasdale home of our friends, Chuck and Judy Smith.  Ten years ago, we bought our own land and built a home in Wayne County, a journey that took me completely by surprise and that I describe in Bargaining for Eden.

The change from seeing a rock ledge where we camp and dream of a house to standing in the house—looking out the windows, walking out the French doors to the plaza with my morning cup of coffee, standing on the rim and looking back at the house, our house—astonishes me.

From our bed alcove at dawn we see flares of orange light on beam and earthy stucco, with the snow-spackled forest of Boulder Mountain deep and dark behind. Watching the play of light move across the house matches the pleasures of contemplating a sculpture or an earthwork. The angles and framing lines interact with rock and horizon—respond to the landscape—and prompt us to think about our placement within that landscape as individuals, as a family, as members of a community.

This landscape is the place I know best.  When I imagined the setting for a novel to which I devoted several years (and which I have yet to finish), my characters lived in a slightly fictionalized version of Fruita.  When I write about wilderness, my images come from Wayne County and its surrounding country.  This place is my home. I’ve met three generations of local residents. I don’t feel like a newcomer, because I’ve loved this country for so long. But newcomer I am.

For this is a complicated home. The West that Wallace Stegner described as the Geography of Hope seems to be evolving into a Geography of Hostility.  Wayne County is doing better at building bridges than most places in the rural West, but even here we’ve got up-county and down-county.  We’ve got newcomers and old-timers.  We’ve got LDS and non-LDS, the Feds and the Tea Party, Paiutes and Anglos, the Cattleman’s Association and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Climate change has the Colorado Plateau in its crosshairs, and sooner or later we will run out of water.  Intact wilderness is under constant attack from those who insist on unlimited access for motorized vehicles to every nook and cranny.  ATVs and dirt bikes may be fun to ride, but their tires slice through the biological soil crust that holds the world together.  A few irresponsible riders begin to unravel the skin of this fragile ecological world, and I’m terrified of the consequences.

The Entrada Institute stands at the crossroads of all of these constituencies, and I know that the future will bring more evenings in the Robbers Roost lecture series like Dwight Williams telling stories as he describes what goes into a set of panniers or Cathy Bagley recounting the history of the Torrey Ditch, more mixed crowds happily listening to great music together.  Entrada can build bridges, break down barriers, and shatter stereotypes.  Let’s do all of this together.

I’d like to close with a few paragraphs from the booklet I wrote for the park back in 1977.  I called it Rock Glow Sky Shine: the spirit of Capitol Reef.  We wanted to offer visitors the story of the backcountry—a story that didn’t exist in any existing publication back then.  We wanted to lure them beyond the Scenic Drive into that backcountry.  The book is long out-of-print, but I still like these words that I wrote to end the text, words that still capture for me the magic of this place we all love.

Capitol Reef exists in grand terms—the hundred miles of the Fold, wide panoramas in Cathedral Valley, millions of years of time. But it also leads a day-by-day, nook-and-cranny life. This land shares its intimacies most generously when you walk, gazing up at canyon walls, or simply watching what passes under your feet. The images that flow by—rock, flower, lizard, tracks in the sand—all tell tales full of the land’s character.

Canyons may be the best part of Capitol Reef: side canyons that twist their way out of the Fold, channeling floodwaters toward the rivers. Their flood-cleared passageways make walking easy, and you will find them everywhere—from the Visitor Center, where Sulphur Creek emerges after carving its Goosenecks, to the most isolated tributaries of Hall’s Creek in the south end of the park.


Each canyon shelters unique secrets. But to share them you often must start walking in desert flats where only a few hardy shrubs grow. An arroyo leads you on toward the Fold, the dry streambed winding through hills baking under blinding sunlight. The desert molds the personalities of all that grow here, where aridity rules life.

For shade you must retreat to low hills, where soil holds a fraction more moisture. Here, a few scattered and struggling juniper and piñon pine make up the evergreen “forest” of the canyons.

Suddenly you leave the flats behind and enter the Fold. Sandstone walls rise on either side to funnel you into a canyon. Amble on and you may find water:  a trickle, a pool, a spring—tucked back under an overhang or nudged up against a shady cliff. Sheltered in an alcove, nourished by a seep, a hanging garden—the most distinctive canyon country place—shimmers with the brilliance of blossoming monkeyflowers and columbines. Green bounces off canyon walls—the transcendent lime-green of maidenhair fern growing like a natural billboard to announce the seep.

And somehow, this tiny, algae-scummed spring has all the mystery of the sea.  The slow plop of one droplet at a time, falling from seep to ledge to pool, has the same resonance as waves crashing along the Oregon Coast. For that gentle drip means life. It means cottonwood and box elder and shade, and tracks at the pool’s muddy edge. Night visitors—cougar, mule deer, canyon mouse—tramp over daytime tracks of dove, raven, antelope ground squirrel.

The slow dripping of a canyon seep rings deep, whispers “Paradise!” more than the lushest mountain meadow. Contrast with the surrounding land makes the smallest patch of green seem positively exotic, for it is hemmed in on all sides by unadorned canyon walls, by old, overwhelming rock.

So much rock, in fact, that canyons can make you a bit uneasy. Past the spring the canyon enters its narrows. Slickrock cliffs soaring a thousand feet on either side make you feel very small. Shadows cool your skin—wet with sweat from the open hotbox of the canyon behind you. The narrows close to a slot barely wide enough to inch through sideways, where full sunlight never reaches. You shinny over a boulder, warily looking thirty feet above you to a logjam left by the last flood. Such places make useless your complacent reactions to the everyday world.


You find yourself nervously seeking kindred souls—a juniper, a lizard—anything other than the ancient rock, anything alive. The power of the rocks noticeably humbles the living things scattered among them. Yet suddenly you sense life flowing through a rigid claw of juniper. A lizard’s flash from under a barberry bush startles the cliffs with movement, sends an irrepressible cry echoing down the canyon: “I’m ALIVE. If only for a moment, I race across cliffs, my claws scratch rock, I mate and reproduce my kind. I give this land its reality, not rock.” Life\ goes on, if only to spite the watching cliffs.

You hear the lizard’s scuttle and can’t help but breathe easier, reminded that you are not alone with the rock. You move along the canyon floor once more, after a sheepish look over your shoulder at impassive canyon walls.

Along your walk, you look the Reef in the eye, and find there a world of images. Canyon walls provide both frame and picture, tapestried by dark mineral stains of desert varnish, accented at their bases by twisted juniper gnarls and murky plunge pools. Claret-cup cactus blooms against all odds from a crack in a twenty-ton boulder. Leopard frogs shine velvet-gold in the morning sun. And canyon wrens sing—the lilting trill of a musical waterfall, the theme song of the canyon country.

Past the narrows a trickle of water leads you on. Here and there a single fallen cottonwood leaf gleams through golden riffles of the stream. Another small narrows opens up into an amphitheater—a cool grotto of stone in the secret center of the Fold.

Soak your feet here in the still water of a plunge pool, tiny water insects brushing your legs. The canyon continues on above the amphitheater, but a thirty-foot dryfall blocks the way. There is a chance no one has explored the upper reaches of this canyon.

The essence of Capitol Reef waits above that amphitheater, where perhaps no person has walked. For the spirit of this place is wildness, always waiting around an unexplored bend.

When you return to Capitol Reef, walk any canyon and soothe yourself with the bright music of canyon wrens. Squeeze through a narrows, sit yourself down in a plunge pool. But leave one rimfall unclimbed, one bend unexplored. Just once, stand and glory in the magic luring you around a corner, and then turn back the way you came. Leave one canyon to wind its way around a cliff and disappear unseen into the unknown, wild heart of the Fold.

Myth, Fear, and Loathing in the American West

I had the honor of filling in for the Reverend Tom Goldsmith at Salt Lake’s First Unitarian Church this morning.  What a kick!  (and an honor…).  I liked being sky-high in that pulpit, and I greatly appreciated my warm and welcoming audience.  Here is what I said:

Over the years, I’ve spent a great deal of time in Southwest Indian Country, writing and photographing and listening.   Indian artists still work with the old designs, whether they make their mark on a hand-coiled pot or a cradleboard or on the flanks of a horse decked out for a parade, whether they paint traditional designs on buffalo hide or on the satellite dish standing outside their hogan.

Native dancers still wear buckskins, moving through space with a sensuous tinkle made by rows of metal cones shaped from the lids of chewing tobacco cans.  Those jingle dancers see no reason to take off their Mickey Mouse wristwatch when they enter the pow-wow arena.  Indian people live in the 21st Century—giving up some of the past to absorb the present, but maintaining connections to the earth, to culture, to ancestors.

This isn’t “the desert”—with all the connotations of barrenness that word “desert” carries with it.

“This,” they say, “is home.”

An interviewer from the East, at ease in green and watery places and leery of the arid West, once asked me how to fall in love with the desert.  How could transplants like her find a way to be touched by such daunting space?

I began my answer with a phrase that just popped into my head: “The opposite of relationship is arrogance.”

Come into new country ready to listen. Don’t figure that you know everything there is to know.

Arrogance means refusing to take in new information, ignoring context, planning without regard for the failures and successes of the past.  Arrogance means assuming you already know—when you don’t.

As I’ve listened to Indian people talk about the Southwest, I’ve learned just how connected everything is, from land to people to spirituality to art to my own crafts, photography and writing.  All these connections came together 25 years ago, during the four days that I photographed an Apache girl’s coming-of-age ceremony at Whiteriver, Arizona.

I watched as Jeannette Larzelere became a woman. Like so many other Apache girls on the verge of womanhood, she passed through the coming-of-age ceremony called the sunrise dance. The entire village of Whiteriver on the Fort Apache Reservation, surrounded her with respect and love, dancing her into adulthood.

I wish you all could have been there with me, for the more people who watch and participate, the more powerful the ceremony.

I have never seen anything more moving.

My companion, the late San Carlos Apache medicine man Philip Cassadore, told me that Apaches believe the young woman goes from childhood to adulthood in these four days, “the most important part of her life.”

After taking many pictures that weekend, I turned to ask Philip whether it was really acceptable to publish and display these intimate images, to share them.

With a wry spark in his eye, Philip reassured me: I had a wordless model release from the entire community: “You took the pictures there at the ceremonial ground in front of two hundred Apaches, and no one stopped you.  If somebody is going to stop you, they’ll stop you right there.  Nobody stopped you; that means okay.”

If any of you know Apache people, you know they are absolutely fierce about being bluntly honest.  I could trust Philip’s reassurance.  If someone in that dance circle wanted me to quit photographing, that concerned Apache would have no problem telling me.

What an honor to experience that ceremony.  What a generous gift from the Whiteriver community to include me—and my camera.

These stories that I tell you today belong to the Indian people who told their stories to me and allowed me to take these pictures. I have the privilege of being the messenger.

In the old days, every young Apache woman passed through this Sunrise Dance—in Apache, a nai’es, a “getting her ready” ceremony.  Today, not every Apache girl wants one; not every family can afford to bear the costs; not every family believes that the ceremony is appropriate.  But those young women who go through the ceremony travel on the medicine man’s chants, passing onward from childhood once and for all.

The medicine men sing behind her; they stand to sing the creation story of the Apache people.  They sing for four days.  At night, in a tipi, they solemnly instruct the girl in the right ways to live as an Apache woman.

As so many other Apache girls reaching adolescence have done for centuries, Jeanette Larzelere dances first with a friend, for moral support.  Then, an older woman sponsor of impeccable credentials joins her.

On the third day, everyone in the community has the opportunity to bless the young woman with sacred pollen, corn and cattail pollen, the pollen of life.  And as she is blessed and blessed and more blessed, and blessed again, she acquires the power of Changing Woman, the great Apache heroine, and can return that blessing, granting every wish from long life for a toddler to a mother’s concern that Changing Woman watch over her son studying to be a barber in Dallas.

Jeanette wears on her forehead an abalone shell, symbolizing the shell within which Changing Woman sealed herself to survive a great flood and become the first Apache—a holy person indeed.

On the last day of the ceremony, a young man dips an eagle feather and a spray of sage in a basket filled with clay and water. He covers the kneeling initiate with this earth paint, to give her the power of the earth, to keep her strong until her old age. With this clay, she acquires still more power from Changing Woman.

There are comparable spiritual experiences for young people in many cultures: a glowing Christian child receiving the sacrament of confirmation; a young man or woman standing in a synagogue to read from the Torah for the first time as a Bar or Bat Mitvah; a young Buddhist leaving his family to don saffron robes and begin his interlude as a monk.

For these four days and through the rest of her life Jeanette Larzelere embodies the strength of the Earth, the connections that define a people’s homeland.

We don’t need to be an Apache person to acquire that strength.  Look around…

Everything really is connected—and the more we share in that power, the more innovative and understanding and wise we can be in our lives, our work, our world.  The more connected we will be with our families, with each other, with ourselves.

Not everybody understands this on their first encounter with these connections across cultures, with The Other.

Twelve years after that remarkable opportunity to photograph Jeanette Larzelere’s coming-of-age, I celebrated another coming-of-age.  My wife, Joanne, and I took my parents out to dinner here in Salt Lake City, to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday.  We went to a trendy café.  I excused myself to go to the men’s room.  The décor in the bathroom was just as elegant as the dining room, the lighting subdued and exquisite.

I stood in front of the toilet contemplating the photo on the wall; I was stunned.  What would Jeanette Larzelere think about her image hanging here, a focal point (dare I say it) for a parade of well-off White Men relieving themselves between courses?

My picture of Jeannette Larzelere at the culminating point of her ceremony—this picture—had been purchased by the restaurant owner a few months before at a fund-raiser. He bid it up, evidently moved by the subject. He received my written description of the ritual to take home with the print. I was pleased and felt he must understand the power of the photograph.

Now I have found the photo hanging over the toilet in the men’s room at his fashionable cafe.

This picture captures what well may be the most important, most sacred event in this girl’s life.   An entire Apache village gave unspoken permission for me to photograph this intimate moment. In recompense, I have the responsibility to speak for Jeanette. Hanging her photo above a toilet demonstrates profound disrespect, demeaning her, demeaning the Apache religion, Indian people, and all women.

We non-Indian people still haven’t learned. On the one hand, we continue to romanticize Indians. We flock to Dances With Wolves in one generation and to Avatar in the next.  We root New Age ritual in the more accessible edges of tribal religions.

On the other hand, racism continues. Indians remain “the other.” We deny the survival and vitality of contemporary Indian people. We freeze them in 1880, a “vanishing people” with a “lost” culture. We forget that Indian people are just that—people. And that missing act of empathy—attributable to lack of experience, lack of attention, lack of taking the trouble to find common ground—denies us a rich understanding, a resonance, a connection.

Several weeks after her ceremony, I saw Jeannette Larzelere walking in jeans and a T-shirt at the Apache Tribal Fair. She still looked transfigured. I hope she retains a little of that strength today, more than twenty-five years later. She will need it.

As it turns out, we all need it.

Today, I live in two worlds—in a university neighborhood in Salt Lake City and just outside a tiny town in southern Utah.  I can assume the role of “The Other” in either place.  I am an urban environmentalist.  I ride my bicycle to this church every Wednesday morning for my yoga class—wearing Birkenstocks, for god’s sake!

I am also a taxpaying homeowner in Torrey, Utah—in the rural West, the land of sagebrush rebels and angry ranchers.  I am struck by how much conflict and suspicion and fear exists between these two groups that I belong to—even as we all watch the natural treasures of the public lands that we love, and that belong to all of us, slip away.

The petroleocracy in which we lived during the Bush-Cheney years pushed hard to escalate development in wild Utah. We have slowed our assault in the last 20 months.  But corporate interests continue to successfully exploit Westerners who fear change.  The Tea Party isn’t funded by individual populists at two dollars a crack; it’s funded by the Koch brothers.

An August article by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker tells us that the Kochs operate oil refineries and own industries that make their holdings the second-largest private company in America, after Cargill.  David and Charles Koch are among the richest people in America. The top ten includes four Waltons, of Walmart (two men and two women), Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison of Oracle, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the two Kochs, who are tied at number five with a fortune between them of more than forty billion dollars.  Jane Mayer writes, “By giving money to “educate,” fund, and organize Tea Party protesters, the Koch brothers have helped turn their private agenda into a mass movement.”

David and Charles Koch don’t want dialogue.  They have no interest in reaching out to The Other.  They want power.   They want to change America.  They are fearful, and they fan fears. They learned at their daddy’s knee. “In a 1963 speech that prefigures the Tea Party’s talk of a secret socialist plot,” their father, Fred Koch predicted that Communists would “infiltrate the highest offices of government in the U.S. until the President is a Communist, unknown to the rest of us.”  Fred Koch believed that “The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America.”

You may be wondering how we so quickly traveled from an Apache village in the middle of nowhere to the Forbes 400.  It’s an easy answer.  In the second decade of the 21st Century, nowhere, no place, is the middle of nowhere.  We are all connected.

Those of us who still think of ourselves as living in the middle of nowhere like to revel in the freedom of being a Westerner in all this glorious open space.  We continue the tradition of disliking outsiders who tell us what to do—whether those outsiders are scientists who work for federal land management agencies or people from far away who come to Utah for the first time as adults and fall in love with our wilderness and become conservation activists who work to protect Utah’s public lands from overuse and development.

For every piece of land each of us sees a different reality—wilderness, parkland, homeland; grazing allotment, timber harvest, stone quarry, uranium mine. Beauty and challenge. We see real estate deals and quick profits. We also see public preserves and national parks, responsibilities to our great-grandchildren, lifetimes of local commitment, and Paiute Indian ghosts.

What we see is a mosaic of land tenure and fierce belief guaranteed to make Utah wildlands a high-stakes battleground.

We have elected an African-American to the presidency, and the Koch brothers’ father, Fred, would be horrified. A lot of other people are uncomfortable with our black president, and they mask their discomfort with a flurry of angry language.  There is a racist strain in the Tea Party and its supporters.  That venom spills over into generalized hollering, with slogans like, “Take Back Utah!”  From what?  From whom?  Insecurity and fear grow from our economic woes and manifest in a distressing array of hateful attacks on The Other.  As my Torrey writer friend Chip Ward puts it, Utah has turned into Glenbeckistan.

In his syndicated commentary last week, the Pulitzer Prize-winner Leonard Pitts summed up what we have been hearing from our fellow citizens who are offering “what now passes for political discourse in America:”

“The situation has been vexing for years, but the last two summers, with their birthers and Ground Zero mosques and death panels and town hall shouting matches and guns at rallies and rocks through windows and threats of Quran bonfires and charges of socialism, Nazism, terrorism and general sense of end-times bacchanal, have been especially disheartening.”

Have we really evolved no further than this from Fred Koch’s fear of conspiracy in 1963?

For an eloquent response, look back to the brave and brilliant speech on race—one of his best—that Barack Obama wrote during the presidential campaign.  What he said about race applies equally to the chasm in culture that has paralyzed and poisoned our discourse about the open spaces of the West.

President Obama points out that inflammatory hate speech is not only wrong but divisive “at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems that confront us all.  If we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to solve challenges like health care or education.”  Or, I submit, the future of our public lands.

The attackers, led vociferously in the Utah State Legislature by Rep. Mike Noel of Kanab, think that they hate environmentalists.  They believe that wilderness designation will destroy rural Utah’s resource-based economy.  They can’t listen, they can’t ponder; they can only rant.

The chasm between these attackers and those who support the conservationists’ vision of treating Utah’s public lands with tenderness and restraint yawns nearly as wide as the distance between white and black America.

To bridge that chasm, Noel and his supporters at Take Back Utah will need to come to grips with the changing West.  Extractive industry no longer forms the crucial core of the rural economy.  Recreation and tourism—and retirees drawn to Utah’s wild landscapes who choose to move to places like Kanab and Torrey—form the new economic bedrock.

So is it really a good idea to do what Mike Lee told the Utah Republican convention that chose him over Bob Bennett as this year’s Republican candidate for the United States Senate from Utah: to “get the government off of 70 percent of our land?”

That would be the two-thirds of Utah that remains public land, owned by all Americans—including Zion and Bryce and Arches and Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks.

And the San Rafael Swell and Grand Staircase-Escalante and Cedar Mesa.  The High Uintas.  The Wasatch.  That would even be Lake Powell.

I don’t think Mike Lee has been talking much with the Utah Travel Council.  I also don’t think he has the budget to take over these lands.

Lee told the conventioneers last spring that “The people have realized that the power is in the hands of the people. Tea partyers, 912, and our caucuses.”  “912” would be Glen Beck’s 912 Project: 9 principles and 12 values that define “us” as opposed to “them.”

These folks want to do away with the Departments of Education and Energy.  What are our two biggest crises?  Declining success in education and climate change.  I think we need all the help we can get.

We all live in the same West, and we need to figure out how to talk to each other across the fence—even when our angry neighbors keep building the fence higher and higher.

In turn, conservationists need to acknowledge the roots of Noel’s anger.  Rural Utahans react instinctively, with suspicion, to all new federal designations.  They rightfully resent condescension.   And yet both long-term residents and newcomers love this astonishing land.  There is common ground here, if we can only find our way to that emotional overlap.

Barack Obama has been highlighting our choice for years, now.  In that same 2008 speech on race, he said, “We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism.  If we do, nothing will change.  Or, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’  Let us find that common stake we all have in one another.”

I bumped against the image of the demon enviro one morning when I talked for a spell with Larry Fletcher at his home in the Kodachrome badlands on the outskirts of the little Mormon village of Cannonville, Utah. The wind swept down on us from the west, whistling through the pines and firs shading the breaks at Bryce Canyon and swirling through slickrock narrows where I’d been hiking with my family in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument.

Folks in town had referred me to the Fletchers. Having rattled the bike rack to pieces on the back roads of the Colorado Plateau I needed a place to store our family’s mountain bicycles until I could return for them with a repaired rack—and I’d been told that the Fletchers had an empty shed that might be available. Larry was generous and accommodating and neighborly. His face was as wind-chafed as the barn wood of his outbuildings. And then he cocked his head and asked me a question. He wanted to know if I happened to be a member of the Sierra Club.

It seemed Larry had never met such a character. He had grown up in Cannonville. He imagined every Sierra Club member, every environmentalist, to be his enemy—a faceless Other from New York, who would never come to his town or to his home territory, much less to his driveway. He was convinced that these people hated him and wanted to destroy his way of life.

Larry looked at me with wonder when I admitted my identity. I didn’t fit his caricature. Sure, we had plenty of differences. But we could talk without fisticuffs; we were even enjoying each other’s company. I knew a few of the places that he knew, a few of the same people. By the time I left, he was bemused by the whole situation—bemused that I had turned up, and that I didn’t seem to be crazy.

Since then, my family has purchased land in Wayne County.  We have built a house there.  It’s a thrilling and restorative experience to have that home perched on the fulcrum between the village of Torrey and the wilderness of the Waterpocket Fold.  I first lived in Wayne County thirty-five years ago when I worked as a Capitol Reef ranger; I’ve visited nearly every year since. I’ve met three generations of local residents.

I don’t feel like a newcomer, because I’ve loved this country for so long. But newcomer I am.

I keep looking for common ground in both my homes—and one place that I’ve found it has been the “Faith and the Land” initiative brilliantly facilitated by Terri Martin and Deeda Seed at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.  That conversation about the spiritual importance of wilderness in 11 faith communities led to an interfaith statement on wilderness delivered to the Utah congressional delegation on the eve of Earth Day in 2009.  The interfaith statement became part of the hearing record last fall when the House Resource Committee turned its attention to America’s Redrock Wilderness Act for the first time ever in the United States Congress.

But, remember—I live in two worlds.

“Wealthy, overeducated spoiled brats.” A longtime resident in Wayne County summed up local attitudes toward us move-ins, and a new acronym lurks in that one-liner. Old-timers are jealous of WOES—those Wealthy Over-Educated Spoiled brats—and they are fearful, too, of the power granted by financial resources and education and angry at the shift in attitudes toward public and private land that the WOES bring with them.

Stereotypes hurt. I can picture a cartoon of an overwrought face-off between the two factions—a couple of naïve but well-meaning, be-fleeced, and Teva-sandaled WOES standing next to their mountain-bike-racked SUV in front of their lovely stucco home newly built in a former alfalfa field, righteously brandishing copies of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Sierra Club newsletters as well as a current New Yorker—toe to fence line with an angry, cowboy-hatted, hard-working local mounted on an ATV embellished with antienvironmentalist bumper stickers, a rifle strapped into his gear, his machine flanked by ranks of hungry heifers searching for one last clump of grass on a drought-starved range.

When you begin to turn over the rocks of casual assumptions, however, the conservative, resource-based local Mormon men and women may not match your expectations. The “wealthy, overeducated spoiled brats” may not either. Easy classifications like these form perfectly split kindling for western anger. I’m convinced, however, that there is hope for the future and that dialogue can incrementally wash away the stubborn certainties and ignorance of unchallenged generalizations.

The New West is urban.  Today more than eighty percent of Westerners live in cities.  More than half of American Indians live in cities.

Identity doesn’t come automatically in this modern West.  We might be cowboys, but we have to decide if we are mythic cowboys or Sundance Catalog cowboys trumpeting our trendiness with our freshly purchased apparel—or if we just happen to be folks who work on a ranch and know a lot about livestock.  We might define ourselves, in part, as western skiers or river runners or hikers, but we may well have grown up in Newton, Massachusetts or Toledo, Ohio before we came west.

I imagine a Next West, a People’s West, where, with a new awareness of the true nature of our home, we finally acknowledge that we will always live enmeshed in Place—and that to find our way we must collaborate in creating a community rooted in healthy relationship, with each other, with the land.

Even as we predict a future for the West, it keeps changing; it keeps challenging us.  Just as when summertime flash floods sweep a canyon clean, and a hard winter wedges free a new succession of rockfalls to block our way.

The latest challenge looms large.  The Colorado River Basin lies squarely within the crosshairs of global climate change.  Rising average temperatures are certain to bring warmer summers, more rain than snow, decreased spring runoff, and more frequent wildfires.  Fewer and fewer canyon treefrogs will call from potholes and desert streams.  Climate change will push every living community uphill until alpine tundra and alpine animals like pikas can retreat no higher and will be pinched right off the mountaintops. What will we do for water in this increasingly dry century?

In the canyons of this dynamic home place, in the tricky cultural currents we must navigate, my aging generation is running out of time to make a difference.   I turn sixty this month.  Sixty isn’t old, but clearly we can’t dawdle.

Our edges are rounder, our destination closer.  Gravity and time turn out to be equally inexorable.   This same arc through time deepens our relationships with the places we love.  The redrock wilderness has granted us spiritual refuge, repeatedly.  The universe has provided us with a lifetime of chances to speak up for these remaining fragments of wild ecosystems.

Let’s take full advantage of these last few winding and glorious bends, missing no opportunity for joyful adventure, tending to our grassroots work of building bridges between us and them, rising to each occasion calling for advocacy in the face of fear and loathing—as we all tumble downcanyon toward our final resting place in the sea.

America’s Great Outdoors

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,

Stephen Trimble

The Process of Life

We’ve just spent ten days at our little house in Torrey, Utah—the longest stretch we’ve ever had here.  I love the monsoon season, but this July has gone far beyond the normal afternoon thundershowers, with mornings dawning gray, lots of electrical storms, and, even on clear days, cloud build-ups starting at breakfast.    I’ve had a fine time photographing—and here is my luckiest (after much persistence) shot.

In my last entry, I posted an exchange about access to wilderness.  My respondent was concerned about wilderness (big “W” congressionally designated wilderness) excluding anyone but the hard-bodied young.  That’s not what we’ve seen in our series of day hikes here. On the main trails in Capitol Reef National Park, we’ve seen families, cohorts of multigenerational French tourists, young couples, and middle-aged folk.   In Grand-Staircase-Escalante National Monument and neighboring wilderness study areas, we haven’t seen many people, but those we have seen have been hikers like us, around sixty, slow and steady.

In a fine forthcoming book (Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks, University of California Press, 2010), Bill Tweed ponders the future of the national parks as he walks the John Muir Trail.  He notes the same phenomenon: most of the through-hikers are middle-aged.  Young people make quick dashes into the wilderness—trail-running, sport-climbing, and mountain biking.  Long contemplative walks don’t seem to have much appeal to millennials bred on the zing of whiz-bang technology 24/7.

My wife, Joanne, and our cousin, Carol (visiting from Maine), go to exercise classes, take walks, ride bikes.  I go to a yoga class and do as many errands as possible by bicycle.  We walk the dogs. We are fit but not in training, thin but certainly not on ascetic diets.  Nothing special in the way of physical specimens, really.   But we should be able to keep walking into the canyons for many more years.

Bill Tweed speculates that our generation has a distinctive history: coming of age at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, swept into wilderness travel as REI and EMS stores turned up in major cities.  Backpacking was cool and adventurous.

My 19-year-old son, Jake, joined us in Torrey for a couple of days, with a friend.  The two young men quickly grow restless with our four- to ten-mile day hikes.  They want more excitement.  Jake rediscovers Steve Allen’s canyoneering guidebooks on our bookshelf and gets intrigued with the notion of multi-day technical backpacks into the most remote canyons on the Colorado Plateau.  I know that Steve Allen and his buddies see no people at all on these trips.

Jake will try one of these trips, I’m sure.  He could become a real devotee of remote canyoneering.  Does this corroborate what my antagonist in the San Juan Record thought, that the wilderness is only for the young and strong?  Clearly not, given all those weathered and gray-haired hikers we keep seeing.

I’ve been reading Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari for my book group’s next meeting.  I haven’t read him in years.  The last time I tried, I found him grumpy and sour.  Now, maybe I’m more philosophical about his refusal to romanticize.  It’s a terrific book, written when Theroux returned to Africa more than thirty years after teaching as a young man in Uganda to travel from Cairo to Capetown.  He is turning sixty, and he is acutely aware of that:

“What all older people know, what had taken me almost sixty years to learn is that an aged face is misleading.  I did not want to be the classic bore, the reminiscing geezer, yet I now knew: the old are not as frail as you think, and they are insulted to be regarded as feeble.  They are full of ideas, hidden powers, even sexual energy.  Don’t be fooled by the thin hair and battered features and skepticism.  The older traveler knows it best: in our hearts we are youthful, and we are insulted to be treated as old men and burdens, for we have come to know that the years have made us more powerful and streetwise.  Years are not an affliction.  Old age is strength.”

Yup, it’s all of us strong old people marching down the trail!

Theroux also nails how I feel about my work mixed in with my life:

“When I told Africans where I had come from and how slowly I had traveled, they said, “So you must be retired.”

“No, no, no,” I said overreacting, because I despised the word and equated it with surrender.  “I’m traveling.  I’m working.”

That wasn’t it, either: not business, not pleasure, not work, not retirement, but the process of life, how I chose to pass the time.”

How I choose to pass the time tomorrow relates to all of this pondering.  I’m going to the “listening session” for the Obama Administration’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative here in Salt Lake City.  I hope to be able to state some opinions that filter through to the Department of Interior about these stunning public lands of ours.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Journaling at my new website

It seems only appropriate to start a journal (some would call this a blog!) in parallel with redesigning my website.  You can access these posts directly at http://www.stephentrimble.wordpress.com or through my website, at http://www.stephentrimble.net/journal/blog/

For my first entry, I’ll post my most recent op-ed, published in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News and co-written with my friend, George Handley:

San Juan County wilderness protection is vital to all Utahns

By George Handley and Stephen Trimble

Published: Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sen. Bob Bennett rightly takes pride in last year’s Washington County lands bill, which brought competing interests to the table and earned their support to protect permanently 256,000 acres of wilderness. Now, as the end of his term approaches, Bennett is working in San Juan County to craft similar comprehensive legislation.

This moment can lead to real protection for America’s red rock wilderness. Good legislation can reverse the decisions of the Bush administration that allow degradation of this irreplaceable landscape with increased off-road vehicle routes and rash and unnecessary natural resource development. But we worry that artificial haste and insufficient public input may lead to an inadequate bill.

Over the past three years, we were just two of more than 230 people who took part in two-hour “Faith and the Land” dialogues, sharing personal stories about the spiritual importance of wilderness in our lives and discussing how our faith traditions call on us to care for Utah’s wild lands. Utahns from Episcopalian, Islamic, Jewish, Latter-day Saint, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Roman Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, and United Church of Christ backgrounds met in their respective faith communities. These dialogues exposed a vital but often neglected common ground in Utah’s rich and diverse faith traditions: We Utahns love our wild deserts and canyons and mountains and rivers, and we want to protect them for generations to come.

San Juan County exemplifies these extraordinary landscapes with true wilderness character, including the rich archaeological resources of the canyons of Cedar Mesa and the ramparts and basins within Greater Canyonlands that remain unprotected by Canyonlands National Park. The stunning mesas and domes of the Glen Canyon proposed wilderness — one of the biggest and most spectacular tracts of wild land remaining in the nation — deserve special attention.

This wild Glen Canyon region includes Mancos Mesa, dissected by the 600-foot sheer Wingate Sandstone walls of Moqui Canyon. Unfortunately, the Bush administration plans designated the Moqui Canyon creek bed with its permanent stream as an official ORV route. The White Canyon wilderness, north of Natural Bridges National Monument, includes thousand-foot red rock cliffs and more than 100 miles of canyons festooned with alcoves, hanging gardens, arches and grottoes. Here, too, the Bush administration plans designate several unnecessary ORV routes, cutting this remarkable wilderness into pieces.

These are public lands, belonging to all Americans. As much as the good citizens of Monticello, Blanding, Bluff and the Navajo and White Mesa Ute reservations care for this land, San Juan County numbers only 14,000 people. The state of Utah, in contrast, is rapidly approaching 3 million, more than 80 percent of whom live along the Wasatch Front and rely on such wilderness areas to take their families backpacking. These citizens certainly constitute a vital part of the public who deserve a place at the table.

We call for Bennett to hold hearings in the Salt Lake area about the San Juan County bill — and any other county lands bills under discussion. Our elected officials will subvert the democratic process if they ignore the commitment of citizens along the Wasatch Front, inspired by faith, to permanent and sustainable protection of these wilderness areas.

Wilderness stewardship is intimately intertwined with living ethically, living mindfully and living with restraint. As the “Faith and the Land” dialogues made clear, what makes good ecological sense makes for good theology too. This idea can unite rather than divide us.

The wild lands of San Juan County are too precious to allow a small number of people to settle their future. Give all the people of Utah a chance to be heard.

Professor and writer George Handley is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Provo. Writer and photographer Stephen Trimble is a member of Salt Lake City’s Reconstructionist Jewish congregation Chavurah B’Yachad.


I always ask for dialogue–for call and response.  Well, I got it.  Here is a piece from the San Juan Record, full of fire and brimstone, written in response to our piece:

“Come to Jesus” group joins radical environmentalists to lock down San Juan

by Buckley Jensen

If SUWA, the Sierra Club and others of their ilk are not enough, locals now have a group on the Wasatch Front who have been spiritually directed to lock up all Wilderness Study areas in San Juan County for backpackers only.

In the June 20 issue of the Deseret News, a “My View” editorial by George Handley and Stephen Trimble say “we are two of more than 230 people who took part in three years of two-hour ‘Faith and the Land’ dialogues discussing how our faith traditions call on us to care for Utah’s wild lands.”

They continue: “San Juan County exemplifies these extraordinary landscapes with true wilderness character and consists of one of the biggest and most spectacular tracts of wild land remaining in the nation…and it deserves special attention.”

They go on to discuss several specific areas of San Juan County, including Mancos Mesa, Moqui Canyon and the White Canyon Wilderness, as examples where the Bush Administration’s recommendation was to have a network of ORV (off road vehicles) trails to allow a vastly larger percentage of Americans access and enjoyment of these places.

Allowing ORV trails in these places is simply unacceptable to Handley, Trimble and their flock of religiously-enlightened preservationists.

“As much as the good citizens of Monticello, Blanding and the other communities of San Juan care for this land,” say Handley and Trimble, “San Juan County numbers only 14,000 people… while Utah is rapidly approaching three million… more than 80 percent of whom live on the Wasatch Front and rely on such wilderness areas TO TAKE THEIR FAMILIES BACKPACKING. The wild lands of Utah are too precious to allow a small number of people to settle their future.”

Well, my response to this drivel is that these 230 “enlightened” spiritualists on the Wasatch Front, and many other self-anointed saviors of our ancestral lands in San Juan ought to try more tact and less condescension before they publicly announce what ought to be done to our little corner of the world.

Why is it that environmentalists insist that the only way to save the world is to put it off limits to everyone but those in their physical prime and with bank accounts such that they have days and weeks to spend walking through it?

In a perfect world, where people didn’t get older or physically unable to take long hikes with heavy back packs, that philosophy might fly, but 95 percent of the “owners” of America’s public lands will never be able to see the magnificent places in question if a selfish few like Handley and Trimble work to assure only the young, healthy and wealthy can gain access.

While jeeping and backpacking was my favorite recreational activity as a youth, I am getting to the age where lugging life’s necessities on my back through 100 miles of the White Canyon Wilderness is a bit more than I want to tackle at age 66.

Sensible and responsible riders on ATV’s are not going to damage San Juan County. Heavens, if you have ever seen what happens in the bottom of White Canyon every time it rains, you would know that whatever disturbance a pony or an ATV makes is no match for the flood that takes all evidence of mankind into Lake Powell.

It makes my blood boil that so many outsiders want to keep locals from riding through it on a horse or an ATV, even if Mother Nature does the housecleaning every few weeks.

My forebears came into San Juan 130 years ago and battled the Indians, cattle barons, floods, drought, disease and total isolation. On top of all that, the United States Government almost gave all of San Juan County to the Southern Ute Tribe after the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers had sacrificed everything to tame this wild land.

Let us pray that the current generation will be as successful in winning our battles with those bent on changing our way of life in San Juan as were our tenacious ancestors.

San Juan County already has more land set aside for wilderness, national parks, national monuments, state parks, national recreation areas, wild rivers, along with BLM and Forest Service set asides than 99 percent of all the counties in the United States.

And still the visionaries on the Wasatch Front and all kinds of politicians who have never been here want more…much more. And of course they all think they know better what is best for San Juan than those of us who have built it into the wonderful place it is today. Carpetbaggers, interlopers, spirtualists and politicians be advised: It isn’t going to happen without a fight.

My advice to the Handleys and the Trimbles of the world would be to go back for further discussion with the source of your spiritual “inspiration”. See how your conclusion jibes with “doing unto others as you would be done by”.

Finally, try to fathom the magnitude of your own selfishness in trying to put OUR county off limits to all but a tiny fraction of the 14,000 people who live here and the hundreds of millions of owners of public lands in this nation who do not share your elitist proclivities.


Buckley Jensen is right to point out that not everyone can backpack.  George and I neglected to describe the myriads of other ways to experience wilderness.  Anyone can ride the rivers through wilderness, as the stellar organization Splore proves every year with river trips for people with disabilities.

Even more pertinent—we did not describe the primary way that my family has used to visit wilderness over the last couple of decades.

My children were born in 1988 and 1991.  For years, we relied on wilderness hiking guidebooks to take us to the brink of designated wilderness or wilderness study areas.  We drove our truck to the edges of those wild places, and set up a family camp—kids, dog, and all.   We then took small hikes from the camp, returning to revel in the luxuries of wilderness car-camping:  multi-course dinners cooked on our propane stove, Sun Showers warmed by the afternoon blast of solar radiation, the astonishment of gazing up at stars that fill skies far from the glare of cities, and the elemental pleasure of sleeping together in a big comfy dome tent.  When our kids were very small, we called any walk beyond sight of the truck a “hike.”  As the kids grew older, we took longer and longer walks.

No matter how short the walk, we were in the wilderness.  We gloried in that wildness.  And absolutely anyone can have these same experiences, which require no special knowledge, skill, or strength.

And, yes, George and I should have told this story.