Canyon Tales
Wilderness at the Edge:

by Wallace Stegner

The dispute over how much BLM land shall be set aside as wilderness in the state of Utah is one more round in the long disagreement between those who view the earth as made for man’s domination, and wild land as a resource warehouse to be freely looted, and those who see wild nature as precious in itself—beautiful, quiet, spiritually refreshing, priceless as a genetic bank and laboratory, priceless either as relief or even as pure idea to those who suffer from the ugliness, noise, crowding, stress, and self–destructive greed of industrial life.

Between the extremes, between the interested and the disinterested, there is a large group of the confused, uncertain, and misled; but the conflicting parties are still the Birdwatchers and the Roughriders, the responsible stewards of the earth and those galvanized by the spirit that “won the West:” that reduced the beaver and bison to remnants, clear–cut the mountainsides, overgrazed and plowed up the grass, set the topsoil to blowing, pumped down the water table, dried up the springs, trampled the riparian zones of streams and silted up the gravelly spawning creeks, dammed and diverted the rivers, left its ghost towns in a hundred gulches and the outwash of its monitors at the mouths of a hundred canyons, and that in these days, as careless as ever, darkens and sours the air around Colstrip, Billings, Four Corners, Page, Huntington, Castle Dale, Lynndyl, and many another place.

Some of that damage was done in the rage to get rich quick, some in the defensible but often futile hope of creating homes and farms in unlikely country, some in the effort to fuel the industrial monster we have created. Some was done by individuals, some by corporations and governments; some in ignorance of consequences, some in reckless disregard of them. From one point of view, one that gains adherents steadily as the remaining wild country shrinks, the West was not won at all, but mainly lost.

In many parts of the arid interior West, the clean magnificence, the clean air and long views, the natural balances and interdependences that make its enduring flora and fauna object lessons in adaptation and survival, have been defaced or diminished by our efforts to make the country serve either our lust for quick wealth or our everyday needs. There are many places that are already dedicated to those purposes. But if the remaining wild country were put to its highest, most reasonable, most sustainable use, it would be asked to serve neither everyday needs nor get–rich–quick dreams. Except in well–watered areas such as the Wasatch Front in Utah and the apron of the Front Range in Colorado, no part of the West, and certainly none of the remaining wild parts, is ever going to support a large permanent population. If we surrender the wilderness areas to so–called ‘productive’ uses, we will give up, for brief and ugly benefits, the highest values that wilderness provides.

Historically, every western boom has been followed by bust. The economics of liquidation—get in, get rich, get out, or, more commonly, go out, go broke, go back—has applied to fur, game, gold, timber, grass, oil, uranium. In the end it will prove to have applied to most irrigation agriculture as well. The Public Domain, which east of the 100th meridian was quickly disposed of, found few takers in the West except hit–and–run takers, and little by little the federal government began to assume responsibility for it. Since 1872, when Congress created Yellowstone National Park, large areas have been protected from exploitation by being set aside as national parks, national forests, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, and wild rivers. The BLM lands are the left–overs. For generations they remained open, nearly empty, available to almost any use people chose to make of them.

What I mean to say is that the Public Domain started as an assumption, a sort of squatters’ rights assumption, and quickly became a habit that remains long after it is no longer valid. It existed before law, and law was slow to protect it. The laws that grew up within it, such as most water law and the mining law, were essentially the justification of appropriation, which was itself essentially tolerated trespass.

Surrounded by open space, Westerners got to feeling that it was theirs, because they used it freely. Many still feel that way, and de facto, they are right. Even now, anybody can stake out a mining claim on BLM land wherever he finds color, and can remove without fee any minerals he finds. Permittees can run cattle or sheep at cheap subsidized rates on both BLM and National Forest land, and their privileges over the years have hardened into vested rights, to be bought and sold along with the home ranch. Anybody can hunt, camp, ride, hike, drive an ORV or a dirt bike, almost anywhere on BLM land, and many assume the right to pot–hunt in Anasazi ruins and deface or steal whole panels of pictographs. If a local BLM man tries to keep livestock to the permitted numbers, or restrain pot–hunters and dirt bikers, he can be made very uncomfortable, can be harassed and threatened until the bureau transfers him to save him from violence, and replaces him with someone more willing to work with local interests.

It took a long time for even minimum acceptance of federal responsibility for these left–over lands. The first step came in 1934, the peak year of the Dust Bowl, when Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act, eliminating the old General Land Office (and with it most of the land laws permitting the staking of agricultural claims), and creating the Grazing Service, which undertook not only to rescue the overgrazed range but to charge, finally, for the right to put stock on it. The West welcomed federal aid—it always does—and quietly sabotaged federal regulation by packing grazing district councils with local stockmen, foxes who knew what to do in a hen house. If the Grazing Service, which later became the BLM, caused trouble, congressional friends of the stockmen could always bring it to its senses by cutting its budget. The end result was a federal bureau manipulated by and subservient to local interests.

Then in 1976 Congress went a light–year beyond the Taylor Grazing Act, and passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), which gave the BLM both specific mandates and the teeth to enforce them. Suddenly it seemed that federal regulation was going to be a fact, not a fiction. Suddenly people were coming into local BLM offices with the intention of really enforcing the law and maintaining the resource. Also, it now appeared that FLPMA had ordered BLM to inventory all its potential wilderness areas. That meant that, if they were reported and certified and acted on by Congress, whole basins, whole systems of plateau and canyon, whole related playas and dry mountainsides and high snow–fed valleys, might be withdrawn from the traditional uses and abuses.

FLPMA instantly brought on the Sagebrush Rebellion, with its furious anti–Fed feelings, its threats of violence, its denial of both history and law in its assertion of states rights to lands that had never been anything but federal, that had been specifically renounced by every western state upon its admission to the Union. But the Sagebrush Rebellion ceased abruptly when Ronald Reagan was elected President and James Watt and Robert Burford occupied the Interior Building. With such friends in power, who needs a rebellion?

But FLPMA was still law, the wilderness inventory still had to be made. In some of the eleven public lands states, though it never identified and certified enough wilderness to satisfy environmentalists, the BLM did at least a token job. In Utah, as this book attests, it delayed, juggled boundaries, made recommendations on the basis of no more than a helicopter overflight, arbitrarily broke up or eliminated areas of bona fide wilderness because of real or hoped–for mineral resources or real or hoped–for power installations. It cut some areas because it already had plans to chain juniper–pinyon forests and plant crested wheat grass range that could then be leased at a fraction of its cost to local stockmen. If it moved reluctantly in much of the West, in Utah it appears to have done its best to evade its legal obligation, and at the same time to have exceeded its mandate. It had no mandate but to inventory its wilderness; as Ray Wheeler points out in this book, in Utah it came up with commercial and industrial zoning, usurping the function of Congress.

Why? Why in Utah, where there is more authentic wilderness than in almost any state except Alaska, and where much of the wilderness is unique, unmatched in any part of the world? Why Utah, where every tourist turns into an awe–struck worshipper? Why Utah, where in the six Colorado Plateau counties most concerned with the wilderness inventory (an area slightly larger than Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined) there live barely 28,000 people, concentrated in a handful of oases where human habitation is feasible?

Well, Utahns were, and some still are, frontiersmen. They share states’ rights assumptions and biases. Away from the Wasatch Front, the population is so thin and the wild land so extensive that they cannot conceive of its being damaged. Though many of them are hunters, they have not all made the connection between good hunting and good wildlife habitat; and though they all grew up in a country short of water, they have not all understood that a country short of water for agriculture is also short of water for industry or municipal use. No more than other Westerners do they like dictation or interference from outsiders, and they are as susceptible as other frontier Westerners to the temptation of violence. Many consider the wilderness inventory, and indeed all federal regulation, an unwarranted intrusion into land–use decisions that should properly be made by the people who live there.

But there are special, residual, half–lost reasons for Utah’s intransigence. Utah is a desert state, drier than any other state except Nevada. It was settled by a God–guided, prophet–led, persecuted people who had good reason to hate and fear the United States, and who fled to Utah, then Mexican territory, thinking of it as the Canaan that the Lord had prepared for them. The Mexican War put them right back in the country they had fled from. Ten years after their arrival in Utah they were fighting a war against an invading American army, and in the 1870s and 1880s great–grandfathers of southern Utah’s present generation were hiding out from U.S. Marshals bent on tracking down ‘cohabs.’ Many of those fugitives hid out in the fastnesses that the Utah BLM was told to inventory for wilderness designation a hundred years later. It is surely hard to think that country where so much of your intimate family and community and church history has taken place is not yours, and that strangers tell you what to do with it.

Moreover, the land that God and Brother Brigham brought the Mormons to turned out to be, in spite of truly heroic efforts, largely unfriendly to settlement. The Mormons quickly settled the Wasatch Front and the fertile Sanpete and Sevier valleys. They sent colonists across the desert to Genoa, on the eastern side of the Sierra, and down to Las Vegas and San Bernardino (Brigham’s corridor to the sea), and up into the Salmon River country of Idaho, and down to Moab, on the Colorado, and to St. George, on the Virgin. In 1880 a belated wagon–train made an incredible journey down along the Kaiparowits Plateau, through the nearly vertical slot called Hole–in–the–Rock, across the Colorado in Glen Canyon, and across Wilson’s Mesa to found the town of Bluff, on the San Juan.

But some of those extensions of Zion were overtaken by the expanding United States, and some, like the Lemhi Mission in Idaho, ran into trouble with the Indians, and some, like Bluff, almost as isolated as if they were on another planet, languished in their tiny pockets of fertility. Nowhere could the population expand except along the Wasatch Front from Brigham City to Nephi. Mormon families were big, and encouraged to be big. Now they are still big, but not so strenuously encouraged, for the land very early reached the limit of its capacity to support people. It is a distress to southern Utah’s Mormons and to their friends, of whom I hope I am one, to watch generation after generation of young people take off for Salt Lake, Provo, Ogden, California, or ‘back east’ in search of jobs by which to live. Some who manage to remain train as foresters or range managers and find jobs with the Park Service, Forest Service, or BLM; and some of them may never lose their inherited mind–sets, which may explain why the Utah BLM has been so sympathetic to local prejudices.

Residents of Loa, Panguitch, Blanding, Moab, for reasons that seem good to them and that are played on by mining and livestock interests, sometimes see wilderness advocates such as those who belong to the Utah Wilderness Coalition as people bent on killing the only chance their children have of getting a job close to home. Coal mines, uranium mines, oil wells, oil sands, oil shales, power plants, look like hope even when they are largely speculation, and even when their success would destroy the life these people have grown up in. Wilderness they could accept if it meant a lot of paved roads, motels and gas stations at every spring and stream, helicopter flights over wild eroded country, and all the rest of the tourist–resort syndrome. But wilderness that would remain wilderness seems to them a waste.

Sometimes the resentment against ‘outside interference’ runs high. Thus the county supervisors of Grand County sent out their road crews to bulldoze a road up Negro Bill Canyon, a wilderness study area supposed to be protected until completion of the wilderness inventory. In effect, they were defying the United States to control its federal land. And thus local citizens threatened with death the dedicated people who discovered and exposed the shoddy nature of BLM’s wilderness inventory. Thus, every now and then, they hang or burn in effigy people such as Clive Kincaid and Robert Redford, who work against the industrial development that some locals think so essential.

That violence is an expression of desperation, the frontier dying hard, the reaction of people pushed to the edge of their tolerance by forces they do not understand. I sympathize with their feelings; I also think they are profoundly wrong, or else that they are disguising some personal economic stake in the future that goes beyond use and into profit.

I think they fail to understand the nature and necessity of federal ownership and management in their arid, bony, nearly roadless country—that is, that they have not read their own history. I think they mistrust federal intervention because it is ‘outsider,’ and don’t sufficiently mistrust the local mining and livestock interests most opposed to federal controls. I think that even in the area of tourism they expect too much, want too much—want not a sustaining economy but a boom; and I think that is pathetically western of them, because in the country they live in, booms are short, and are followed by busts, and an economy that can sustain itself is going to be far more modest than some motel–keeper’s dream. I think they are wrong because, in their eagerness to find some way of family living and jobs for the children, they are too willing to sacrifice their air, their water, their views, their silence and peace, everything that makes their life, poor as it is, enviable. I think they are wrong because their Old Testament view of the earth conceives it to have been made for man’s exploitation. What they have yet to come to is Aldo Leopold’s view that earth is a community to which we belong, and to which, in consequence, we owe a duty.

I would urge upon the people of southern Utah, and upon the politicians who will be trying to give them what they want, that in their own long–range interest they look carefully at their options. One, represented by the BLM’s meager 1.9 million acres of wilderness, would encourage maximum exploitation, maximum damage to the water table, wildlife habitat, scenery, and ultimately, tourist visitation. A second option, which would involve maximum roads and tourist development, would be every bit as damaging: take a look at Page or Wahweap now. A third, represented by the Utah Wilderness Coalition’s 5.7 million acres of wilderness, would permit continued exploitation of coal and other mineral resources where the wilderness has already been invaded, and leave maximum wilderness intact for the future, guaranteeing Utah, America, and the planet something incomparable and increasingly precious.

Once, in the 1930s, Harold Ickes and others were proposing that almost all of southern Utah be made into one vast national park. That never came to pass; if it had, I suspect that the southern Utah economy would be stronger than it is now, and the wilderness would be more intact. But the 5.7–million–acre proposal of the Utah Wilderness Coalition is the closest thing still available. It is not a wish–list concocted by insatiable environmentalists. It is actually a true inventory of what is left, the precise thing that the BLM was instructed to prepare. With that inventory available, Congress can make the decisions that the BLM tried to take out of its hands.

The conflict in the Colorado Plateau and out in the Great Basin desert comes down to a conflict between the material and the spiritual. With only a minor and temporary sacrifice of material profit, the spiritual can be saved intact. But the attempt to generate maximum immediate profit to individuals or corporations will destroy the spiritual integrity of the wilderness.

Brigham Young told his people, made restless by the California Gold Rush, to forget about gold; gold was for paving streets. If he were alive now, he might tell them that uranium is for blowing up the world, not helping it; that coal is for increasing the greenhouse effect and poisoning the world’s air; that electric power is for lighting the gaming rooms and whorehouses of Las Vegas. Wilderness is for something else.

The Utah deserts and plateaus and canyons are not a country of big returns, but a country of spiritual healing, incomparable for contemplation, meditation, solitude, quiet, awe, peace of mind and body. We were born of wilderness, and we respond to it more than we sometimes realize. We depend upon it increasingly for relief from the termite life we have created. Factories, power plants, resorts, we can make anywhere. Wilderness, once we have given it up, is beyond our reconstruction.

Wallace Stegner

Letters by Wallace Stegner
Wilderness Letter (1960)
Intro to Wilderness Letter (1980)

 tales  ‹›  new 

© 1990 Wallace Stegner, originally published:
Wilderness at the Edge, Utah Wilderness Coalition.
Salt Lake City: Utah Wilderness Coalition, 1990.