In the summer of 1985, no intrusion on the red desert of southeast
Utah seemed as ugly or intrusive as a seismic truck and a goddamn
I was a seasonal ranger
at Arches National Park and watched helplessly and grumbled futilely
as monstrous seismic vehicles, loaded with
tons of high tech equipment, crept ponderously but surely across
the valleys and mesas adjacent to the park boundary. The seismic
crews crushed everything in their path; the result, years and decades
later, is a patchwork of intersecting "roads" when viewed
from the air, that begin nowhere and end nowhere. Future civilizations
may wonder just what in the hell we were doing. Perhaps they'll think
they were alien landing strips. Or perhaps Eric Von Daniken was wrong
about mysteries like the Nacza Plain. All those confusing lines were
perhaps simply the handy work of Inca seismic trucks during the planet's
last industrial incarnation.
Cows wandered frequently into the arches; they fouled the water
in Courthouse Wash and, for reasons I could never explain, faithfully
and regularly made their way up the park road (always on the right
side) to Balanced Rock, where they seemed to congregate near the
viewpoint until local rancher Don Holyoak came up with his truck
and removed them. It was the park's responsibility to fence the cows
out but never ending budget constraints made that task nearly impossible.
And so, for years, the cattle shuffled in and shuffled out. I grew
to loathe them.
Southeast Utah, as elsewhere in the Intermountain West, viewed
the battle to save its dwindling wilderness lands in
very black and white terms. And with good reason. Twenty years ago,
the Rural West was still a vast, mostly unpopulated expanse of deserts
and mountains and prairies, dotted with tiny communities that had
changed little in a century, which depended mostly on the extractive
industries for survival and which might get a small boost from tourism
during the summer. Even in tourist vortexes like Jackson, Wyoming,
gateway to Grand Teton and Yellowstone Parks, the tourist season
barely lasted three months. They called the off-season in Jackson,
from Labor Day to Memorial Day, the "cocktail hour." It
was that quiet.
Tourists could be a terrible
annoyance, but their impacts were temporary and their visits were
limited. And while their numbers seemed overwhelming
at the time, they did have the decency to leave. Even in desert recreation
meccas like Moab, the crowds had thinned to a trickle by October
and the canyon country had time to recover. The lands didn't need "management" for
tourist impacts; they simply needed to be left alone.
And so environmentalists devoted their time and energy and resources
to fight the threats to wildlands they thought were most persistent
and enduring--mining, timber, and cattle. In 1983, the Reagan Administration's
Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, came to represent everything
environmentalists feared from a government, in partnership with Big
Business, that saw land as simply a commodity to exploit for its
We protested the accelerated energy exploration programs of the
80s, the extensive chaining of thousands of acres of pinyon-juniper
forests to expand rangelands for ranchers, the destruction of forest
lands in the mountains that saw the construction of new roads and
the loss of wildlife habitat. We thought that if these lands could
be spared further degradation by these huge industries, the West
would simply be left alone.
Our assumptions were tragically wrong.
"LOCKING IT UP" & THE
In the late 1980s, the conflict between the Rural and Urban West
came more clearly into focus. Here in Utah, the Southern Utah Wilderness
Alliance, formed in the mid-80s as a grassroots local environmental
organization, changed its strategy and began to abandon its local
emphasis. Wilderness, SUWA argued, was not a local issue. The BLM
wilderness lands in Utah were owned by all Americans, and consequently
they deserved a greater voice in determining how those lands should
be used. SUWA's membership skyrocketed, jumping from 2000 in 1985,
to 20,000 by the mid-1990s. It argued that New Yorkers and Californians
and Floridians had just as much of a stake in the future of Utah
wilderness as a fourth generation rancher in Escalante. Never before
had the argument been so polarized. And yet the polarization had
In the 1980s, the idea of wilderness needed no justification for
most of us--it was simply the right thing to do. Environmentalists
believed, perhaps a bit simplistically, that they were part of a
crusade, a cause as pure and unselfish as any great social issue
of the 19th or 20th Centuries. We believed that there should be places
on this planet spared from the Hand of Man. Wilderness should be
saved for the rocks and the trees and the animals that inhabited
those lands. If wilderness offered a recreational benefit or an economic
advantage, or even spiritual enrichment, those opportunities were
secondary achievements. And beyond the legal designation of wilderness
areas, environmentalists strove to raise the level of sensitivity
to all lands.
Rural Westerners recoiled
at the idea of wilderness designation, as non-motorized recreational
tourism increased and small Western
towns felt the impact of those increases. Wilderness proposals were
met with anger and fear; if large tracts of land were shut down to
any "mechanized vehicle" as the Wilderness Act mandated,
the collapse of the Rural West was inevitable.
And not just its job market--the economics of the West was always
a primary concern, but there was more to it than just the shutdown
of public lands to extractive industries like oil and gas. They feared
the loss of a lifestyle that not many urban Americans can understand,
much less appreciate. The Rural Westerners may not have appreciated
the dynamics and interplay of cryptobiotic soil communities or the
sexual habits of a Blackfooted ferret, but they understood another
component of wilderness far better than most members of the Sierra
Club. Rural Westerners understood Solitude.
City dwellers could not
fathom the isolation and remoteness of most rural western towns
or comprehend just what the people who resided
in these communities did. For the better part of a century Rural
Westerners basked in the emptiness and solitude of the American West.
Now suddenly, the onslaught of forces dedicated to "saving" the
very places they had assumed would always remain empty and mostly
untouched seemed impossible.
By 1990, the rhetoric
had been ramped up on both sides."They
want to lock it up for the elite few!" was the battle cry of
most rural Utahns at the turn of the decade. That spring, anti-wilderness
advocates presented a study paid for by the Utah Association of Counties
that attempted to prove that wilderness designation would have dire
effects on the rural economy of the state. The study's author, Dr.
George Leaming, concluded in his report that designating 5.1 million
acres of BLM lands as wilderness in Utah would cost $13.2 billion
over the next 25 years. Leaming's estimates depended on two assumptions:
What economic activities would have happened in a non-wilderness
area? and how would these activities be reduced or eliminated by
wilderness designation? His assumptions were extraordinary; the Leaming
Report was based on the notion that without wilderness, 80% of all
speculative minerals would be recovered and sold by 2015, and that
with wilderness designation, all grazing, all mining, and all recreational
visitations would cease. Completely.
The Leaming Report was
easy to dismiss and other studies clearly showed that the numbers
were extravagant. Three years earlier, Republican
Governor Norm Bangerter created a Resource Development Coordinating
Committee to consider the impacts of wilderness and could find no
sign of economic disaster waiting in the wings. The report noted, "It
is unlikely that exploration or development would occur in most wilderness
study areas even without wilderness designation."
Billboard in Moab. 2005
THE DAWN OF AMENITY CLIENTS
But wilderness proponents
were compelled to take the argument a step further. Supporting
wilderness offered certain economic advantages
that environmentalists believed should not be overlooked. Enviros
pointed to a 1987 study by the University of Idaho that compared
economic growth in rural western counties that contain federal wilderness,
versus the growth of non-wilderness counties. The study concluded, "Counties
which contain or are adjacent to federally designated wilderness
are among the fastest growing in the United States."
Or as Lance Christie
wrote in a 1990 Zephyr article, in behalf of the Utah Chapter of
the Sierra Club: "Studies done on the economic
impacts of wilderness on local economies consistently support the
idea that...designated wilderness in an area acts like an advertisement
that says: 'Here is a treasure house of environmental amenities!
And, they'll be here tomorrow because some treasure-hunter with a
bulldozer can't come and tear them up.' This advertising attracts
people economists call 'amenity migrants,' causing twice the economic
growth in rural areas with designated wilderness than in areas without
Christie concluded, "The
migrants responsible for this growth are younger, highly educated
and move in to enjoy environmental amenities
rather than because of economic opportunities...Once there, these
energetic and educated people develop their own economic opportunities."
SUWA, the state's leading
environmental organization, weighed in on the issue. It asked the
question: "What is the economic impact
of wilderness designation?" and had a ready answer. "Rural
Utah counties that have booming economies, such as Grand and Washington,
are growing because the public land, open space, and scenery provide
the setting for a healthy tourist industry with an influx of people
who want to live in such a spectacular setting. The future of Utah's
economy lies in preservation of its wildlands and quality of life,
as opposed to promotion of an economy based on the extractive industries."
The economic message from almost all environmental groups was bewildering
and a bit duplicitous. While environmentalists attempted to suggest
that the economics of wilderness would benefit rural Utah, their
wilderness economics strategy would never augment or benefit the
rural citizens who already lived there. Ranchers and oil field workers
didn't have the money or the skills or the inclination to invest
in tourist-based businesses. What was being proposed and embraced
by the environmental community was a new economy that would simply
destroy the old lifestyle of the rural west and replace it with a
new one. Where would the rural westerners go? Perhaps they could
get jobs at McDonald's or the Motel 6--environmentalists were vague
on the fine points.
And what of these "booming economies" in places like Moab?
Did the explosive growth of "amenity migrants" carry their
own environmental risks? By the early 1990s, places like Moab had
indeed exploded. Visitation in nearby national parks doubled in five
years. Adjacent BLM lands were hardest hit. Visitor use jumped from
about 130,000 in 1985 to over a million in a little more than a decade.
Environmentalists said little of these new kinds of staggering impacts
and the exploitation that brought them.
But Lily Mae Noorlander did. Ms. Noorlander grew up in Moab, lived
through good times and bad, reveled in the quiet days when Moab was
a sleepy orchard town, watched Moab come alive in the 50s with Charlie
Steen and the Uranium Boom, only to see it go bust in the 60s--she
had seen it all. But Lily Mae had never seen anything like this.
To her, recreational exploitation was the Mother of all Obscenities.
In a letter to the Deseret
News in 1994, Ms. Noorlander wrote: "Long-forgotten
ranches, abandoned decades ago, are now front page fare in the full-color
marketing pieces of this lucrative industry...Some of the direct
consequences of their promotional activities, aside from generating
profit from calendars, hiking exposes and membership dues include:
more foot trails, bike trails, garbage, human waste, instructional
signs, regulations, law enforcement patrols, costs to local government
for crowd control, and a general loss of peace and serenity to the
plaid clad, waffle stomper crowd.
"The spirit of wilderness," concluded Ms. Noorlander, "has
already been stolen by those who profess to be its savior, but who
have, in fact, trampled the life out of its essential serenity and
solitude in an orgy of self-indulgence."
A few months later, as
if to confirm Ms. Noorlander's greatest fears and suspicions, a
letter was published in the Salt Lake Tribune and
titled, "There's Money in Wilderness." The author was Randall
Tolpinrud, president of Groupwest Properties Corporation in Salt
Lake City. He wrote, in part:
"As a real-estate
developer and homebuilder in Utah, I have a very strong interest
in maintaining the long-term economic foundation
of this region...Because of this conviction, I am concerned over
the wilderness proposal suggested by our congressional delegation.
"I support the Utah
Wilderness Coalition's proposal for 5.7 million acres (in 2003,
the proposal is up to 9.3 million) of wilderness
primarily because the long-term economic potential which wilderness
designation will provide this state.
"The West is changing
dramatically. Lands from Montana to New Mexico are rapidly being
developed by people like myself in response
to growing migration and population...We must look years and decades
ahead. Wilderness designation will grow to represent a powerful economic
opportunity as the West's open spaces shrivel from development. Utah,
with its unique beauty and abundant national parks, could be positioned
to reap significant economic rewards from masses of people seeking
solitude in a wilderness experience from their fast-paced lives."
It was an extraordinary
letter. Mr Tolpinrud was saying in effect, "Look...people
like me are going to develop most of the West's open space. If you
can save what we promoters can't get our hands on, we can make money
from that as well." There was something contradictory about
his image of "masses of people seeking solace in wilderness." How
long would it take and how big would the 'masses' have to become
before the purity of those wildlands was so degraded, they could
no longer be called wilderness?
And that is the issue here.
I expected some sort of response from at least one of the Utah environmental
organizations, but there were none forthcoming. The silence was deafening
and has been growing louder ever since. In their quest to run up
their membership rolls, and especially as the cost of lobbying Congress
grew ever more expensive, groups like SUWA were hard-pressed to refuse
the support of anyone, no matter how tainted their reasons for supporting
wilderness were. What mattered was money. And lots of it. It wasn't
a matter of environmentalists gone greedy or corrupt. They simply
saw no other way to push their wilderness agenda than to play the
high-dollar game. Just like the other guys. The danger was in becoming
just like the other guys.
Meanwhile, the impacts
from millions of those well-meaning "amenity
clients" became more obvious with each passing season. Resource
damage from hundreds of thousands of bicyclists, as far as 30 and
40 miles from Moab was clearly changing the landscape of Grand County.
And it wasn't just the bikes. It was the vehicles that brought the
bikes and bikers--it became a bit embarrassing to praise the non-polluting
aspects of non-motorized recreation when most bikers drive their
SUVs hundreds of miles so they can pedal for ten.
There were cultural and social impacts as well. Moab and Grand County
experienced a housing boom in the 90s that continues a decade later
at full steam and with no sign of a pause. Most of the agricultural
lands in the valley are disappearing literally overnight. The vast
numbers of people coming to live in the canyon country pose a greater
threat to the surrounding wildlands than anything else imaginable.
Still, any serious effort from environmental organizations in Utah
to confront these impacts was almost non-existent. In this publication,
for example, SUWA contributed regularly to each issue of The Zephyr
for more than ten years. In that decade, SUWA wrote tens of thousands
of words about a variety of concerns and impacts affecting the canyon
country. By category, they wrote scores of articles about cattle,
about mining and oil and gas exploration and about ATVs. But stories
devoted to non-motorized impacts or the ever-growing amenities economy
numbered just two.
The Eco-Challenge Race in 1995
Eco-Challenge to 24 Hours of Moab
While Utah enviros continued
to concentrate most of their attention on their traditional extractive
adversaries, even a decade ago, they
could rise to the non-motorized threat when the situation called
for it. In 1995, SUWA and other groups actively opposed "EcoChallenge," a
cross country extreme sports marathon of sorts, created by television
impressario Mark Burnett and televised on MTV. The event crossed
or came near many wilderness study areas, and SUWA was, as one runner
complained, "all over us like a cheap suit." While the
race was eventually allowed to proceed, SUWA's close monitoring of
the event and the pressure it maintained on federal land agencies
like the National Park Service and the BLM kept impacts to a minimum.
And Burnett, frustrated by all the restrictions swore he "would
never come back to Utah in a million years." Instead, he moved
on to create the reality tv series "Survivor," and lowered
the mentality of the television medium to depths never dreamed possible.
It still hasn’t found the bottom.
But since then, opposition
to these kinds of high adrenalin/low serenity activities by Utah
environmental groups has all but disappeared,
in part because many of these commercial outdoor enterprises have
found a way to effectively coopt environmental groups—"if
you can’t beat ‘em...join ‘em" has never rung
truer. In the late 1990s I first learned of a new "industry" in
SE Utah. Several Moab-based companies opened for business with the
sole purpose of exploiting the scenic beauty of the canyon country.
At first glance, this seemed like nothing new nor anything to get
particularly concerned about. River companies and 4WD tour companies
have been operating in the national parks for decades. They’re
heavily regulated and jump through all sorts of hoops to maintain
their permits and are very restricted as to where they can go. But
these new "canyoneering companies" discovered that by keeping
their trips limited to one-day outings, they could slip through the
regulatory cracks, with very little red tape at all.
One of the most successful
of these companies is "Desert Highlights," owned
by a recent Moab arrival, Matt Moore. Moore began his enterprise
in 1997 and continues to operate daily tours at several locations
in Arches National Park. Moore’s tours are all cross-country,
off-trail and lead visitors into sections of Arches that, as recently
as 1996, saw perhaps 100 human visitors a year. Moore insists that
his trips are not for adrenalin junkies and offers a natural history
lesson along the way. But take out the key component of the trips—the
150 foot free rappel–and my guess is, his business would plummet
like a failed belay.
Arches is a front-country
park. The paved roads and 800,000 visitors a year who travel them
are already a major disruption to what was
once a remote and pristine environment. But there was always some
comfort in the fact that one administration at Arches National Park
after another saw the wisdom in keeping the backcountry remote and
relatively untouched. The Park Service has always had a conflicted
dual mandate—to preserve and protect the land, AND to provide
for the enjoyment of the people. At least something was being preserved
at Arches. Pressure by some groups to develop a backcountry trail
system was consistently met with resistance by the NPS. There was
some balance there.
So it’s hard to understand, much less accept, the benign way
NPS officials have responded to commercial enterprises like Moore’s.
Since 2000, Desert Highlights has conducted more than 500 off-trail
tours with thousands of paying customers into the Arches backcountry.
Desert Highlights continues to operate on a temporary permit and
NPS officials continue to insist that the tours are not damaging
the park’s once untouched backcountry. Nor will they address
the future impacts as these tours expand and grow more popular. How
can the National Park Service be so detached and disinterested?
Because the National
Park Service, like most government agencies, needs a watchdog.
It needs many watchdogs. When the NPS did its very
brief analysis of the canyoneering operation, it concluded that "no
affected publics" objected to the business. And that was true---not
one environmental organization in Utah has officially objected to
this canyoneering company or any similar operation. And there are
now dozens of them. Why is SUWA, for example, unwilling to cast a
critical eye at the Arches commercial activity? The fact that Desert
Highlights prominently proclaims itself a "proud business supporter
of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance" may have something
to do with it, whether SUWA will admit it or not. This is the quandary
environmental groups like SUWA face–they want to build a constituency
of businesses who support wilderness, but this is the kind of compromise
it must make in order to achieve the support it wants. And it gets
One of the most offensive
canyoneering web sites I’ve ever
encountered was originally called "Select Circle of Few (sic)," now "Circle
of Friends," operated by Shane Burrows of Draper, Utah. On his
web site’s home page, he writes:
"Want to learn about a secret canyon before everyone else?
Here is your big chance to join the ‘Select Circle of Few’ canyoneering
program and be the first into newly identified canyons....for the
unbelievably low price of $15 (it’s up to $20 now), I will
email you canyon information before it’s published to the Climb
Utah web site."
Yes...that’s pretty unbelievable. Yet, on Burrows’ web
site, which he maintains is a non-profit organization, is a link
to Desert Highlights which in turn offers a link to SUWA. I don’t
believe anyone at SUWA would want to be a part of The Select Circle
of Few; yet there are only two degrees of separation between them
and an "unbelievably low price."
Perhaps SUWA and other
enviro groups see no alternative but to embrace what Bill Brewster
of ABC News called "one of the biggest, baddest,
boomingest slices of the ever-swelling travel pie—Adventure
Travel." In a 1999 story following a canyoneering tragedy in
Switzerland that claimed 14 lives, Brewster wrote that the adventure
sport would grow, despite accidents and the loss of human life. He
interviewed Matt Moore for the report. Under the sub-heading, "Tragedy
May Boost Popularity," Moore, according to the story, "had
a slightly different take, saying that accidents like this week’s
and a similar one that killed 11 in Arizona in August 1997 give a
sport like canyoneering a ‘high profile’ cachet (www.erniemort.com/switzerland1999/adventureworld.htm).
In 2002, SUWA even got
into the act itself when it sponsored and promoted a number of
slide shows by "legendary backcountry explorer
and author Steve Allen." (Redrock Wilderness Newsletter). Allen
called his show, "Canyoneering Chronicles" and he took
it to nine different cities in Utah and Idaho, as well as New York
City. In a related story in the Salt Lake Tribune, titled "Canyoneering
Allen Says More People Should See Wilderness to Save It," Allen
insisted that a mass influx of non-motorized tourists to wilderness
areas was the only way to preserve our threatened wildlands. "We
need more people out there, not less," he said. "Right
now, the wilderness lands are in flux. They’re embattled. We
need as many supporters as we can get...If places get too crowded,
we can take appropriate steps (to limit access)." Again, no
one in the environmental community stepped forward to challenge Allen’s
Numbers indeed appeared
to be the game that many organizations were and are playing, supposedly
for the moral and philosophical support
these groups think the non-motorized recreationists could offer.
There is no bigger numbers game to be played than the "24 Hours
of Moab" bicycle race, held near Moab each fall. The first ‘24'
was staged a decade ago. Since then, their numbers have swelled in
excess of 5000 and the race route comes, in some locations, within
feet of proposed Utah Wilderness Coalition wilderness areas; in fact,
part of the course was once raced inside proposed wilderness. But
environmental groups have steered clear of the event, despite obvious
environmental impacts, because the event is such a shot in the arm
to Moab’s economy.
In fact, the economy
generated by "extreme" adventure-type
enterprises dominates Moab’s business district. The word ‘adventure’ is
so commercially pervasive in Moab, it’s hard to escape it.
Or even remember what it’s supposed to mean. A quick Google
Search for "Moab" and "Adventure"provided almost
4000 hits, including: the Moab Adventure Center, Moab Adventure Xstream,
Moab Adventure Headquarters, Moab Adventure Inn, Moab Adventure Package,
Moab Adventure Guide, Moab Desert Adventures, Adventure Xscapes,
Adventure Racing Retreats, Moab Resort Adventure Package and a link
to the Moab Adventure Park, from WWTI Newswatch50 in, of all places,
Watertown, New York. They reported the following:
MOAB, Utah - Riding down
the ski lift from the highest point on the red-rock rim overlooking
the Moab Valley in Utah, our feet dangled
some 800 feet in the air as Scott McFarland talked about the latest
project for his Moab Adventure Park. "We're applying for permits
for a zip-line, a 2,500-foot-long cable that goes from the top of
the hill to the bottom," McFarland said. "You get into
a harness on the top and cruise to the bottom, kind of like you're
"Without a braking system, you'd hit about 145 miles per hour.
With the system, you'll go 50 or 60. That's on the computer, anyway.
We'll see." One of the city's concerns in considering the permits
is its noise ordinance. Nearby residents are worried about screams
coming from riders zipping down the cliff. "
The report said it all.
What one rarely hears mention of when talking about any form of
recreation these days is silence. Or tranquility.
Or spirituality for that matter. When was the last time anyone used
the reverential aspect of wilderness as an argument for preservation?
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to hear. It may be that
environmentalists seek to avoid conflict with businesses like these
for the very same reason these businesses exist. Ultimately, it’s
always about the money, whether the motive is honest and well-intentioned
or not. That is where we’ve descended to...
The '24 Hours of Moab" bike race.
AN AMENITIES BOOM...AND BACKFIRE
Patrick Diehl is an outspoken
environmentalist and a strong advocate for change in the Rural
West. In fact, he’d like to dismantle
it completely and start over again. Diehl ran for the U.S. Congress
two years ago on the Green Party ticket and received 7% of the vote,
not bad for a guy who, until recently, lived in one of the most remote
communities on the Colorado Plateau (Diehl and his wife recently
moved back to the West Coast). Escalante, Utah is eons away from
becoming the next New West town. It is rural to its roots and proud
of it. It has earned a reputation with some for being one of the
most intolerant towns in Utah; even some environmentalists believe
that Escalante simply wants to hold onto its lifestyle and its history
The clear message, in any case is—don’t try to change
us. Diehl was ready for a change, or more precisely, a revolution.
Two years ago, The
Zephyr interviewed Patrick Diehl and his wife Tori Woodard at their home
in Escalante. Their neighbor and Zephyr contributor Erica Walz interviewed Diehl at length about his views
on what he called "The New Economy."
"The ‘amenities economy’ idea," Diehl explained, "that
the Wilderness Society was putting out is what I think lies (ahead).
There's still a fair amount of merit to this concept. Between the
extractive economy and the purely touristic economy is a third way
in which you have people moving to an area to live there and be part
of the local society and perhaps the local economy--in many cases
bringing their jobs with them and telecommuting--and the reason people
come there is because it's a beautiful place to live. It's not going
to be healthy and beautiful if you degrade it through logging and
mining and grazing. It involves replacing some of the extractive
economies. But I'm much less confident in the future of this economy
(in Escalante) than I was four years ago when we moved here, and
I also see that the savagery of the local resistance exceeded even
my expectations. People will go very far to make their area be extremely
unattractive to outsiders. It has to do with political power. If
you let outsiders in, if you allow them to organize and voice their
point of view you can easily lose control. These small towns have
a lot to lose from a political standpoint if there's much influx
from outside. So the chances of actually getting an amenities economy
going in southern Utah is very bad in the short run because of the
Diehl wasn’t willing to completely abandon the rural population
and believed work could be found for them if this New Economy took
root. For instance, he believed a massive effort to cut and treat
and remove the exotic plant tamarisk would attract a great number
of the old locals, "if they were paid for it." But for
the most part, Diehl wanted to see a dramatic turnover in small rural
communities like Escalante, even its population...
"I think this town
needs to double in size. If we're going to have more towns in this
part of the world they should be more
self-sustaining. They're really untenable. Not just in economic terms
but as cultural units. Maybe 50 or 100 years ago when they were cut
off from the outside world they had to create their own culture,
but right now it feels like the further reaches of Provo to me--it's
nothing, in itself."
What about people who enjoy it the way it is?
"I can't imagine
enjoying it. I really loathe this town, and you can quote me. Socially
it's a really loathesome place. You can
put that in the paper. Absolutely. It's the worst place I've ever
lived, and I've lived quite a few places. So some people like it--it's
like there's no accounting for taste."
failed vision of a New Escalante only frustrated and embittered
him. When Patrick and Tori left town for
good, they left few friends behind. Escalante still holds onto its
rural culture, backward as some people may see it, and intends to
stay that way. Moab, on the other hand, could not have been riper
Moab was already "a funky little town" in the late 1970s
and it was that odd cultural diversity that made Moab such a prime
target for the New West. Although we bickered and fought, the various
factions in Moab at least co-existed. As a result, a level of tolerance,
albeit shaky at times existed in Moab that wouldn’t have been
found, even 50 miles down the road in Monticello. Ultimately, it
was people like me who in a perverse way made the New West Invasion
Still, the philosophy
of the environmental community embraced the idea of a vital "amenities economy" replacing the old one,
whether many of us had misgivings about this alternate future or
not. Fifteen years ago, the Sierra Club’s Lance Christie summed
up the future in his Zephyr essay, "Wilderness Economics: Boom & Bust
Baloney." Lance wrote, "If a community uses wilderness
amenities as a drawing card, then offers goods and services people
want when they come to enjoy the local amenities, wilderness can
make the people selling those goods a lot of money. If the community
resents visitors and opposes wilderness for taking away the freedom
to dig holes searching for treasure, then wilderness (or any tourism)
won’t make them money."
Christie was prophetic
in more ways than one when he added a final comment, "The
whole economic debate over wilderness tends to distract us from
the fact that the major reasons for designating
wilderness arise from non-economic values."
Indeed---yet that is
exactly what happened. When Moab’s amenities
economy really gathered steam in 1993, when seven motels were constructed
in a matter of months and nationally franchised fast food eateries
like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Arby’s,
Taco Bell and Burger King began to sprout along Main Street, when
recreational visitation increased exponentially on surrounding public
lands, none of the major environmental organizations expressed concern—not
SUWA, not the Sierra Club, not The Grand Canyon Trust, not the Wilderness
Society. It was as if they didn’t even notice.
Some were loathe to praise the specific consequences of the amenities
boom, and privately expressed horror at the explosive and uncontrolled
growth, but no one wanted to be on the record opposing it. It was,
after all, their idea. In fact, some organizations went to great
lengths to praise the stunning changes occurring in Moab and elsewhere,
but always in broad vague strokes.
Three years ago, SUWA
printed a feature story in its winter issue of "Red Rock Wilderness," their quarterly newsletter. It
was called "The Local Economic Impacts of Protected Wildlands:
Enhanced Economic Vitality." It was written by Thomas Michael
Power, a Professor of Economics at the University of Montana. Power
and his data asserted that protecting the rural West’s wildlands
did not damage local economies; on the contrary he believed that "protected
landscapes are often associated with enhanced economic vitality." But
he followed that declaration with a curious caveat, considering the
intent of the article, that was all but ignored by environmentalists.
"This does not mean
that those seeking to preserve natural areas should base their
case for preservation on the economic expansion
it will stimulate. That could be a dangerous strategy in the long
run and one that may not be very convincing besides. In fact, in
the long run, ongoing economic growth may well threaten the ecological
integrity of wildlands as growing population, human settlement, and
commercial activities and their accompanying pollutants isolate and
disrupt natural areas. Even though wildlands may be good for local
economic vitality, local economic vitality may not be good for the
ecological integrity of those wildlands. (Emphasis added)"
The remainder of Power’s essay moves away from that warning.
Using the data he had gathered, Power struck several blows in support
of the amenities economy. He noted that "higher percentages
of county land protected by national park, national monument, and
federal wilderness status were associated with higher rates of employment." He
discovered that population growth in areas near wilderness areas
was higher than state averages. And Power observed that Wilderness "protection
was associated with growth rates two to six times those for other
Power concluded, despite
his early warning, "It’s is
not clear why wildlands advocates would not want to meet the economic
critics of wildland protection on their own ground, while also continuing
to make the ethical, cultural, and environmental arguments. After
all, if you can take away the only powerful argument the anti-environmentalists
have, why would you not do so?"
It was as if he was saying,
we can let the anti-wilderness people destroy the West on their
terms or we can fight to destroy it on
our terms. And aren’t our terms of destruction better than
theirs? After all, before we destroy the wilderness, we’re
going to protect it.
to see or would not acknowledge the double-edged sword Power offered.
In a subsequent issue of "Red Rock Wilderness," SUWA
attempted to put its own spin on Power’s report with some additional
numbers of its own. SUWA noted that, "Total employment in Utah
has increased by 45% in the last decade...What is fueling Utah’s
pacesetting growth? Tourism and related services have been doing
well...has been especially robust, and now provides more than a third
of all jobs....Growth is not limited to urban Utah. In Grand County,
a tourism explosion helped to make it the third fastest growing county
All of this was told
with almost evangelical enthusiasm. None of Power’s warnings saw the light of day in this particular spin.
Finally SUWA noted the ballooning Utah population, which grew by
30% in the 1990s. "This tremendous regional growth, with Utah
at its epicenter, is driven by Western quality of life factors like
outdoor recreation, open space, and wilderness....There is a very
real place for wilderness in Utah’s economic future. Protected
by BLM, wilderness can serve as a modest sustainable source for economic
well-being and community development."
There’s nothing"modest" about Moab’s transformation
in 2005. Some environmental- ists might argue that much of the explosive
change in Moab has nothing to do with their efforts to support a
clean, upscale amenities economy. The rowdy raunchy Jeepers and the
noisy noxious ATVs and the rabid Rock Crawlers seem to have nothing
much in common with the leg-powered bicycle as a recreational diversion.
It might be fairer to suggest that the amenities economy backfired
in the environmentalists’ very own faces.
Except for the annual
Jeep Safari itself, Moab was never much of a destination tourist
center. Travelers passed through Moab as quickly
as a ride to the Arches and a daily raft trip required. It wasn’t
until the late 1980s, when bringing your bike to Moab was like making
a trip to the Wailing Wall, that enterprising men and women everywhere
began to seriously take note of Moab. Clearly Moab had achieved that
special status reserved previously for places like Telluride and
Aspen and Jackson, Wyoming...Santa Fe...Sedona. Just a handful of
small towns around the West that suddenly, one day, discovered they
had cachet....that mystical undefinable quality that makes everyone
want to be able to say, "I’ve been there." What motivated
entrepreneur could miss something like that? You could hear the wheels
turning inside their minds:
knows about Moab now, and everyone thinks Moab is a cool place
to be, and if
bicyclists will come here in huge numbers
and spend massive amounts of money in this economy, why can’t
we do the same thing with other forms of recreation? Why not a hill
climb for dune buggies? Why not a rock crawling event? Why not BASE
jumping? Or rock climbing? Or canyoneering? Or skydiving? Or ATV
jamborees and races? Why not anything that can make us a buck and
pull more visitors to Moab? Who’s going to complain?
Truthfully, hardly anyone. Some environmentalists bitterly oppose
the dramatic growth in the use of ATVs in Southeast Utah and the
damage from these vehicles has been stunning. But how did the environmental
community ever think it could limit the amenities economy to the
kinds of functions and activities only they approved of? I doubt
if anyone who despises the motorized recreation industry can take
much pleasure from knowing that imitation is the highest form of
flattery. But the truth is, after Moab cut its teeth on bikes, the
sky was the limit, no matter how dissimilar the activity might seem
to some. It still is.
John Hendricks' 27,000 square foot home at Gateway, Colorado.
LOOKING FOR A ROOM WITH A VIEW
When Thomas Power set
out to analyze the effects of wilderness on the rural economy,
he noted an anomaly that he could not initially
explain. "Researchers," he wrote, "puzzled by the
growth of population in western Montana, despite low wages and incomes,
studied the location of new residential housing to determine what
locational characteristics explained the decisions homebuilders were
making. They found that the closer a location was to a designated
wilderness area, the higher the likelihood of new construction. The
same was true of national parks."
Power’s bewilderment is old news to most of us who live in
small communities near parks and wilderness. New home construction,
which took off in Moab during the early 90s, is often intended for
part-time residents, people who have no intention or need to seek
employment in the area. In fact, these homes and condominiums are
in a way, very disconnected from the socio-economic needs and difficulties
of the community to which they have, at least physically, joined.
They exist in something of a vacuum, because so many of these part-timers
are oblivious to the issues and problems that affect the town. They
don’t know much of the town’s history and know few of
its citizens, they don’t get involved in local politics and
don’t vote. They do pay taxes and they don’t impact the
educational system because most part-time residents don’t have
school-age children, but they still demand the services that they
believe their tax dollars entitle them to. In almost every case,
this kind of second home community negatively impacts the tax base;
in other words, when towns grow in this fashion, everyone pays more.
And what about the land
upon which these homes are built? Almost always, in the small towns
of the Rural West, new residential developments
are built on what was agricultural or grazing land. Once again the "cows
versus condos" debate raises its persistent head. No environmentalist,
worth his organically-grown natural sea salt, has much patience for
the West’s cattle industry and especially public lands grazing.
And the damage caused by some ranchers is well-documented and disgraceful.
I lose patience with ranchers who abuse and destroy the very land
they make a living from, but I try to avoid painting all ranchers
with the same broad stroke. Ranchers run the spectrum like everyone
else. If someone, for instance, tried to tell me that rancher Heidi
Redd didn't understand the heart and soul of the American West, I'd
have to hurt them in some slow and tortuous way. Heidi has lived
most of a life at Dugout Ranch in San Juan County, Utah and I'm glad
But while some environmentalists
may believe that paving over alfalfa fields with something like
Rim Village is striking a blow for Mother
Nature and the New Economy of the West, we should remember Thomas
Power’s warning about the long-term view of this kind of development.
Runaway tourism/growth/expansion of towns like Moab should cause
all of us to take notice and give pause---to re-think all of this.
Exploding tourist numbers and a ‘second home culture’ transform
a community, shift the emphasis of the town away from the people
who live there and toward the tourists who don't. Moab doesn't exist
for its citizens; it's there, in fact, for high dollar transients.
And it rarely benefits the small-town residents that were there during
the tough times; it's the new arrivals with the capital to invest
Most of Spanish Valley, once a bucolic, laid-back mish-mash of alfalfa
fields, cow pastures, junk cars and funky homes is rapidly vanishing
in a sea of condo developments and faux adobe second homes. Who can
suggest that Rim Village is more aesthetically pleasing to the eye
than the alfalfa field it replaced?
And out of that shift comes a vital question for all environmentalists.
When we talk about highest and best use of a piece of land, just
what exactly do we mean, particularly when it comes to water and
farmland? One morning last summer, a friend and I were discussing
the fires sweeping the West. The conversation turned to water and
my friend, the owner of a recreation-based company, complained bitterly
about the amount of water devoted to agriculture in Colorado.
"Did you know," he asked bitterly, "that 80% of the
water in Colorado is used for agriculture? Yet farming and ranching
only constitute 14% of the economy?" (my numbers are estimates--I
can't recall the precise figures but that's close)
A decade ago, I might
have nodded sympathetically and joined the chorus of dissent. But
instead I said, "So what?"
"So what?" he growled in disbelief. "What
are you talking about? You think it's GOOD that farmers use so
"Well what would you prefer?" I answered. "Take
the agricultural lands in many of the valleys in Colorado. Would
rather see them save the water for human consumption and encourage
50,000 people to move into the area? If you shut down the farms,
surely there will be plenty of water for massive urban expansion."
"No," he replied. "I
don't want that either."
I shook my head. "Well,
it's going to be one or the other. As B. Traven once said, 'This
is the real world, muchacho, and we
are all in it.' Do you think they'll just let the water flow slowly
to the sea? This is America, pal. Somebody's going to make money
off that water."
So this is a hypothetical
question about highest and best use of the land that all environmentalists
need to consider. Imagine a 100
acre alfalfa field that requires 100,000 gallons of water a week
to produce a healthy crop. But what if a condominium complex of 300
units could be built on that same 100 acres and the water use by
all those new condo residents could be cut by as much as 75%. Would
the new construction represent a "higher and better use of the
land" because it used less water? It's a question we all need
I still understand the
points made by "cow-free" advocates.
I still recognize the damage caused by reckless grazing practices.
I know changes need to be made. But at a time where the commodification
of beauty, where the "amenities economy" is rapidly creating
an entirely new threat to the beauty and solitude and health of the
American West, a "cow-free" West as an end-all solution
to resource degradation is foolish and simplistic. Never underestimate
the greed of American Entrepreneurialism.
Of all the entrepreneurial
efforts that might fall into the "amenities
economy" status, nothing is as grandiose as the proposed "Cloudrock
Resort Development," first introduced to Moab citizens four
years ago, after months of secret negotiations by the developer,
the State Institutional Trust Lands Administration and local elected
Cloudrock, as originally
proposed and to be built on a mesa south of Moab called Johnson’s Up on Top, called for three luxury
lodges with 198 rooms, 50 condos and 75 homesites—lots would
start at $600,000. According to the Cloudrock Development Proposal,
assembled by the project coordinator Michael Liss and obtained by
The Zephyr in 2000, the plan was stunning. It reported:
Our intention is to create a world-class wilderness destination
resort community in the American Southwest for people who enjoy the
beauty and cultural legacy of the region. The centerpiece of this
community is the Cloudrock Desert Lodge, an intimate luxury wilderness
lodge that will set the tone and standard for the entire community...We
expect our guests to return time and time again, finally deciding
that this is where they want to build a second or third home...We
plan to spend the time, money and creative energy necessary to create
a real estate development that will deliver top prices.
As to who might be a candidate for a Cloudrock future, the proposal
could not be clearer:
We will use a highly-targeted approach, planning intimate get-togethers
at the homes of our friends and initial clients, as many second home
real estate purchasers are often as interested in who their eventual
neighbors might be as in the property itself.
It really said that. And to add insult to injury to anyone with
a net worth less than $10 million, the marketing plan promised that:
Up on Top will be marketed as a vacation community for affluent
and individuals. The Moab real estate market
does not currently serve this segment well, with most developments
targeted to a somewhat lower economic bracket....the lodge and condominium
units that will comprise this mesa village will form a dense complex
in the spirit of the Italian hill towns like Siena and San Gimignano...The
Phase III condominiums will be built in the spirit of the Anasazi
Cliff Dwellings of Mesa Verde.
Clearly, Cloudrock was selling itself to the wealthy, but more specifically
to high-end visitors and future home buyers who also considered themselves
environmentalists. Liss was quick to point out the easy access to
national parks and wilderness areas, some adjacent to Cloudrock itself.
There was a time when
the environmental community might have ben appalled by such an
extravagant scheme. After all, the conservation
movement is rooted in the word "conserve." How could such
an opulent, consumptive and arrogant plan even dream of winning the
acceptance of environmentalists? In the Amenities Economy, anything
As the Cloudrock development
became better known and was required to submit itself to governmental
and public scrutiny, the Glen Canyon
Group of the Sierra Club weighed in on the issue. On behalf of the
group, Jean Binyon addressed its concerns to Michael Liss in a February
2001 letter. Binyon made it clear that, "It is our consensus
that the best thing for Johnson’s is no development at all." Having
said that, however, it was also obvious the Sierra Club had no intention
of putting up a fight. "We realize you are making efforts to
ensure that Cloudrock meets standards above and beyond Grand County’s....We
realize you are well on your way to completing the preliminary plat,
and incorporating changes becomes more difficult with the passage
of time. Never the less, we hope you will be receptive to our concerns..."
What kind of concerns
did the Sierra Club have and what were their requests? Besides
setting structures farther back from the rim of
the canyon, Binyon made the following demands: "coloring roads
to match the surrounding soil...parking lots colored to match the
surrounding soil...utilizing medium to darker earth-tones, and non-reflective
materials on all structures...outdoor lighting should be kept to
a minimum..." They were literally cosmetic in nature.
Binyon also encouraged
restrictions on OHVs..."Next to cows,
(this is) the most damaging thing currently happening on the mesa.
Please be explicit in not permitting their use on the mesa." Apparently,
keeping out cows and OHVs was an acceptable trade-off for a massive
multi-million dollar "wilderness" resort lodge and scores
of condos and homes built on $600,000 lots.
Liss’s reply could not have been more accommodating, "I
would be happy to discuss our project with you and members of your
Chapter," and added enthusiastically, "I am a member of
the Sierra Club and greatly respect the work being done around the
country." No other environmental group in Utah even chose to
express an opinion.
How could any environmental
group be so passive or silent in the face of a project that was
so contrary to the basic principles of
conservation? These homes, whether they were constructed with the
most energy-efficient, recyclable technology available, would be
massive consumers of natural resources, would be clearly visible
from Arches National Park and other scenic areas and would play havoc
with the social fabric of nearby Moab by driving property values
and taxes even higher. To recall Thomas Power’s warning again:
economic growth may well threaten the ecological integrity of
as growing population, human settlement, and
commercial activities and their accompanying pollutants isolate and
disrupt natural areas."
How can environmentalists
sit idly by? Because they can’t
oppose the very economic strategy for the Rural West that they have
embraced philosophically for years. And especially because they fear
the risk of biting the hands (and dollars) that feed them. In the
battle for wilderness in Utah, fundraising plays a greater role with
each successive session of the U.S. Congress, as wilderness advocates
push for permanent legislation. Money is everything. Or as Chris
Peterson, Executive Director of the Glen Canyon Institute puts it, "It
is felt that without playing the game on their opponents’ terms,
they don't stand a chance. So is it better to win or lose the fight?
Those with experience in the field of environmental advocacy deem
it necessary to play ‘dirty’ and enlist any and all means
necessary to accomplish their goals, and believe that walking the
alternative ‘high road’ is an exercise in futility and
ultimately leads to failure."
How much "dirt" are
environmentalists willing to endure? Try this on for size...
John Hendricks is the CEO of cable television's Discovery Channel.
He says he has passionately loved the West since he was a kid when
his father told him that the most beautiful place on earth was a
seldom-visited redrock paradise called Gateway, Colorado. A few decades
later, John Hendricks bought it---lock, stock, and barrel. John Hendricks
is rich. His attorneys made offers to local landowners that were
hard to resist and by 2002, he had accumulated more than 6000 acres
of property, some of which he intends to put into conservation easements.
Then, Hendricks decided to build himself a home where he could survey
his holdings. At last report the Hendricks home has just enough space
for John and his wife to feel cozy---about 27,000 square feet. (See
photo on page 18). It was reported to be the largest residential
construction project in America a few years ago.
The John Hendricks Castle
is perhaps the most grandiose acquisition and construction in a
frenzy of western land buying by America's
wealthy and elite in the last decade. It is becoming a familiar sight—mansions
and castles perched on the brink of some mesa rim or canyon, or mountain
side, staring down at the little people.
An acquaintance of mine, the leader of an environmental group in
Western Colorado, and I were lamenting the mega-homes and mansions
being built everywhere in Colorado, from the Front Range to Glade
Park and eventually, Gateway came to mind...
"What about this John Hendricks guy and his castle at Gateway," I
said. "He’s got to be the most extravagant of them all."
There was a long silence on the other end of the line.
"Uh...I think Hendricks is trying to do the right thing," he
I paused briefly...
"So how much money
does he give your organization?"
Another brief pause. "A
People like John Hendricks
have found an age-old way of gaining respectability and even adoration;
they simply buy it...they buy
everyone. His contributions to ‘worthy causes’ are significant.
He has kept a few artists eating well and contractors love him. Maybe
the Second Feudal Society is our only option, where the peasants
and serfs wait and hope for their wealthy masters to sustain them.
And hope that their masters are the benevolent type.
Environmental organizations have certainly benefitted from large
contributions. Consider the financial status of the Southern Utah
Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). For years, it has portrayed itself as
the underdog, one more struggling environmental group, trying to
survive against the powerful ranching, mining and ATV lobbies in
In a 1999 story
for The Zephyr, current SUWA executive director Scott Groene wrote
in praise of his former boss, environmental legend,
"Brant offered his staff low pay but lots of autonomy to ‘do
good and fight evil. The benefit of lousy pay is you get to experiment.’ Calkin
offered low wages because no environmentalist should be in it for
the money, and ‘pay doesn't affect the quality of the staff.’ He
offers as rationale both that environmentalists have an obligation
to spend their members' money wisely, and that small salaries ensure
that only the passionate keep their jobs. He adds that while experience
is useful, it doesn't automatically result in better or smarter actions: ‘smart
young people with fresh ideas are just as important as those who
have been around the track a couple of times.’"
Groene continued, "Brant
never asked his staff do anything he wasn't already doing. For
example, he and Susan Tixier earned
a total annual salary of $20,000 between the two of them as Director
and Associate Director, about a third of what the current SUWA director
makes now (in 1999). Brant never stopped working, whether it was
leading the Utah Wilderness Coalition out of shaky consensus efforts,
hustling money, or fixing a fleet a beater SUWA cars (he was renown
for resurrecting aging office equipment and trucks). And when it
seemed everything was done, he'd start cleaning the office. "
But in 2005, SUWA is
awash in money. Its 2003 "Form 990" report,
available to anyone who requests it because of SUWA’s non-profit
status, shows the organization had net assets or fund balances worth
$3,557,886 at the end of 2003. That figure is up significantly from
the previous year, when net assets were $2,829,018...an increase
of almost three-quarters of a million dollars in just one year. Salaries
and benefits exceeded $600,000 annually. Its executive director earned
an income of $72,000 plus benefits in 2003 (though according to new
Executive Director Groene, that salary has been reduced to just under
$50,000). SUWA even has a Charles Schwab Fund, worth $831,632, although
the fund lost almost $100,000 during what turned out to be a bad
year on the stock market. While many non-profits invest their revenues
in such ventures, it probably rarely occurs to most contributors
that their membership dues might end up on Wall Street.
SUWA’s counterpoint in the wilderness world, especially when
it comes to road and trail access on public lands in the west, is
the Blue Ribbon Coalition, headquartered in Pocatello, Idaho. The
BRC has been a voracious advocate of ATVs and other forms of motorized
recreation and most grass roots environmentalists would assume that
the powerful motorized recreation lobby gives them the edge in fundraising.
Yet a comparison of the two organizations’ Form 990s shows
otherwise. SUWA outspent BRC by more than $1,500,000 in 2003. And
while BRC operated at a loss that year, SUWA increased its net assets
by almost $600,000. BRC’s net assets at the end of 2003 were
a paltry $59,100. I don’t suggest here that pro-motorized recreation
deserves more funding by any means. And perhaps the funding gap can
be attributed to a land ethic that is moving away from motorized
recreation. But the notion that environmentalists like SUWA are the
economic underdogs—the David to BRC’s Goliath—is
In the end, money ultimately
doesn’t seem to be swaying anyone
in the decades long fight for wilderness. Ten years ago, SUWA’s
staff was half the size it is now. Its starting salaries, in keeping
with Brant Calkin’s admonition, were about $16,000. Now, with
more money than they can even hope to spend, SUWA and the Utah Wilderness
Coalition is no closer to passage of a state-wide wilderness bill
than it was then.
As Ed Abbey once said: "What
we need is something entirely different."
WILDERNESS VALUES: INTRINSIC or ECONOMIC
There are voices of dissent
as environmentalism falls further away from its ethical roots.
A letter to "The Public Forum" in
the The Salt Lake Tribune caught my eye not long ago. It was a letter
from David Jorgensen of Salt Lake City about environmental ethics. "It
is unfortunate," he wrote, "that wilderness advocates must
resort to economic arguments as part of their advocacy. There are
some areas that...should be left alone for their own intrinsic worth
and not just for human economics or even human enjoyment."
But in the same issue,
page one, another article only confirmed Jorgensen's fears about
the future of the environmental movement.
The headline read, "Outdoor Group Threatens to Leave Utah Over
Land Deal." In response to a disastrous plan by Interior Secretary
Gale Norton to cut millions of acres of BLM wilderness from Utah,
and with the support and blessing of Governor Leavitt, Peter Metcalfe
threatened to move his Outdoor Retailer trade show, worth $24 million
to the state's economy, somewhere else.
Suddenly, Leavitt was
in a panic and quickly scheduled a meeting with Metcalfe and other
outdoor industry representatives, "in
hopes of," according to The Tribune, "selling them on his
environmental bona fides." It was clear who had become the most
powerful environmental lobby in Utah. It wasn’t the Sierra
Club. It wasn’t SUWA. It was the Outdoor Retailers Association.
the key word here, because that's what's happening. All the intrinsic
reasons for wilderness are being lost
in the hard-sell, not just by the people who oppose wilderness, but
by those who support it as well. All the eloquence of John Muir and
David Brower and Wallace Stegner and Ed Abbey, among many others,
couldn't move hearts and minds to a decent wilderness bill. But the
suggestion that eloquence and values and integrity have given way
to trade show boycotts, the commodification of Nature and the marketing
of beauty as our most powerful tools for wilderness preservation
somehow fouls the very meaning of wilderness itself. The Outdoor
Industry needs a pristine wilderness to make money, so what better
reason to preserve it? For the environmental community to embrace,
or even cast a blind eye toward that philosophy is more than many
At the core of the environmental
movement has always been the belief that its constituents must
adhere to the ethics and values that make
them environmentalists in the first place. It’s much easier
to be a consumer than a conservationist. From the beginning, we’ve
embraced the idea of living a simpler life. Of leaving a much smaller
footprint on this trampled old planet of ours. Of honoring and respecting
the natural world. Of even making a sacrifice in order to assure
that some part of our earth is left unscathed by the Works of Man.
Our purpose and our goal has always been to pay tribute to The Land
The threats to The Land are greater than they have ever been. And
many of those threats come from the same forces that have always
endangered the last special places. Oil. Mining. Timber. Motorized
Recreation. Industrial Tourism.
But how can environmentalists
escape the label of hypocrisy? How can we condemn oil exploration
when our own consumption of oil is
staggering? How can we condemn the impacts of motorized recreation
while we turn a blind eye to the damage caused by ever-growing numbers
of non-motorized recreationists? How can we heed Abbey’s warning
of Industrial Tourism when, at its heart, that kind of economy is
the future many enviros have embraced for 15 years? How can we condemn
the timber industry when we continue to build homes at an alarming
rate that encroach on the habitat of the very wildlife we want to
protect and then construct them far bigger than anything we’d
ever need to be happy? And when some of our biggest environmental
contributors consume massive amounts of natural resources to build
monstrous part-time homes, how can we possibly accept their donations?
Like a civil rights organization
in the 1960s accepting money from a man who belonged to an all
white country club—these are the
contradictions that destroy our credibility. And like the Civil Rights
Movement of 40 years ago, saving what’s left of the wild American
West is a moral issue, first and foremost. We didn’t fight
for the rights of African-American men and women because there was
a dollar to be made. Nor should that be our motivation as environmentalists
to save wilderness. If we continue to follow this dangerous path,
we may some day wonder if the Road to Victory was worth it.
Or wonder what it is
we actually "won."
Aerial view of ATV tracks near Moab, Utah and the
of Castle Valley, also near Moab.
For other Zephyr stories on this issue, go to our web site:
"It’s Time to Look in the Mirror" April/May
"The Feedback Issue," June/July
"Arches & Loopholes & the NPS," August/September
"Ranching in the West," June/July