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Archive for March, 2010

Most winter afternoons, Jack Turner can be found walking slowly along the frozen Moose-Wilson Road in Grand Teton National Park, which is where I found him one day a few years ago. He was wearing a lofty down parka, padded pants, practical boots, and his huge mittens had turned his hands into paws. I was just back from the massive Outdoor Retailer trade show which is held in Salt Lake twice each year. 2,000 outdoor gear companies get together there to exhibit the latest in equipment designed to keep users safe and clean and comfortable while going faster and faster up and down steeper mountains and through wilder rapids and across wider and drier deserts. At least that’s how I saw it.

Jack Turner

During the past three decades, I watched the land conservation movement pass through three distinct phases. Early on, nearly everyone who climbed mountains and ran rivers and explored wild places was also a conservationist. We learned to ski and climb and backpack and mountain bike because we couldn’t get to the most amazing and beautiful—the wildest—places any other way. And once we got there, the wildness stabbed deep into us and something we couldn’t describe shifted inside and from then on, as if we had no choice, we wanted to take care of those places–guarantee that wildness. Then, for awhile—in the eighties, I think, being an “outdoor person” became cool and new gear technology made it easier for more and more people to get out in the wilds. Even if everyone didn’t act on it, anyone out there under their own power claimed to be an ‘environmentalist. And now and for the past twenty years, being active outdoors seems only randomly connected with being active in land protection. When I can I go to the Outdoor Retailer show to support the Conservation Alliance, which is a small but growing group of gear manufacturers that understands what seems so obvious—if we don’t protect the wild outdoors, no one will need outdoor gear.  This concerned me and when I’m concerned I go talk to Jack.

Jack was concerned about this, too, but for a different reason. After forty years of exploring the most beautiful and remote mountain ranges and wilderness areas in all the world, Jack is concerned that today, those young people spending every available moment moving around in the wildest places are more interested in recreation or speed or adventure or style or exercise, than they are about meaning or understanding or the existential value of pure experience. (more…)

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Since last Saturday, when Stewart Udall died in his home in Santa Fe, I’ve been reading everything I can find about this man, what he did and who he was. I feel fortunate to have on a few occasions spent time with Mr. Udall, and although he was 90 years old when he died, nearly blind, and according to a mutual friend who spoke on the phone to him a few days before, “seemed very ready to move on”, I’m very sad he’s gone. I feel a giant void.

I’ve read a dozen obituaries, each of them another reminder of the foundation of American conservation he helped form during his time as Secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations—4 new National Parks—including Canyonlands in Utah, 50 wildlife refuges, and the first designated Wilderness Areas.

All of his obituaries mention his relationship with Rachel Carson whose champion he became during the storm caused by the publication of her book, Silent Spring in 1962. His own book, The Quiet Crisis, was published the next year and is considered by many to be a companion to Carson’s classic. Terry and I last saw him in 2007 at his home in Santa Fe, the day before he was to travel back east to the John F. Kennedy Library to participate honoring Carson on the anniversary of her 100th birthday. He was busy memorizing his remarks. I remember him getting up from his desk a bit slowly, having just given up the cane he’d been using since breaking his femur the previous winter—when he’d made the conscious decision “not to become an invalid”. He was 87 then, and the years hadn’t dimmed the greatness of his presence or dampened his passion.

We had just read the op-ed piece he’d written on Carson published in the Denver Post a few days before. He told us stories about her and the hell the chemical industry put her through because as a scientist and a writer—but also as a woman—she had been compelled to tell the world about the damage pesticides were doing to the earth. As he spoke, I couldn’t tell whether his emotions were the result of his memory of the pain Carson suffered or because he was so moved by the courage she showed standing up against such powerful forces.  I think the latter. He got angry about Oklahoma Congressman Tom Coburn’s recent blocking of two resolutions written to honor Carson because he believed that her “junk science” had caused the deaths of millions of people from malaria. (more…)

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For many reasons, these are important times in the story of permanently protecting some of the last remaining wild places in the lower 48 states. I’m talking specifically about Southern Utah’s vast red rock canyon country, where 9 million acres still meet the definition of Wilderness, according to the 1964 Wilderness Act. I really love this part of the world and lately I’m spending most of my time here working with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, not walking in some unnamed canyon or laying on a warm rock and thinking or watching the different shapes clouds become as they move across the sky.  No, I’m either in meetings with rural county commissioners who are somehow under the impression that Wilderness designation will hurt their constituents, or I’m driving back roads checking boundaries or looking for any clue that will help make a stronger argument.

That’s during the day. At night I’m looking for better ways to articulate why, during these times of changing climate, devastating earthquakes, political upheaval, and deep financial uncertainty, wilderness matters.  Last night I pulled off of my shelf, William Ashworth’s book, The Economy of Nature, in which he makes a clear case for why environmental protection does not need to be at odds with the market economy.  I wanted to revisit Ashworth’s discussion of “opportunity costs” as a way to measure value in developed and undeveloped land. He uses the example of a woodlot, where by cutting the trees and selling (more…)

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Last night, I attended a packed Salt Lake City Council Meeting as a member of the Sorenson Unity Center’s Garden Committee to speak in favor of Mayor Ralph Becker’s CDBG budget proposal; specifically for the funding for Unity Center’s backyard Community Art Garden within that budget. Great West Institute is a partner with the Unity Center on this project. I was given two minutes to speak and made it within the last three sentences of finishing. Here’s my remarks in their entirety, making the case for the Art Garden and explaining what we’re hoping to do:

The mission of the Sorenson Unity Center is to enhance lives through visual and performing arts and serve as a community gathering place. I believe the Community Garden and Outdoor Event Space represents an incredible opportunity to truly fulfill the intent of this mission.

I became involved in this project because I believe in the importance of natural open space in urban and suburban areas and that art can be utilized as an empowerment and community building tool. This project lies at the nexus of these two ideas. (more…)

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The Power Of Belief

Since coming across this drawing from one of Charles Darwin’s notebooks, I’ve kept a copy of it nearby. Scholars refer to it as his “Tree of Life” sketch. At first I loved it because of how simply Darwin described how one species becomes many which adapt or go extinct. But now I love it more because of the words at the top: “I think”.

Yesterday on Speaking of Faith, one of my favorite NPR programs, host Krista Tippett interviewed Robert Wright about his new book, The Evolution of God. Wright talked about his own process of discovering Darwin as a Southern Baptist teenager and becoming completely immersed in the beauty, simplicity, and grace of natural selection and evolution.

This took me back in my own past—discovering Darwin as a teenager when I was becoming obsessed with nature and seeing natural selection first hand on college field trips as a biology student. I struggled through The Origin of Species, but more than what Darwin theorized, I loved his story—of his passion for wandering wild England, for hunting and collecting, his settling on studying to become a clergyman for one main reason—the opportunity he had to ‘naturalize’ with his professors who believed that to truly know the creator, one must know the creation. I loved every page of The Voyage of the Beagle—to me, it seemed more fantastical and incredible than the Chronicles of Narnia.

I learned later that when 22 year-old Charles Darwin began his five year journey on board The Beagle, he believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible—that God created the earth in six days and rested on the seventh.  What he experienced–what he saw with his own eyes– on that journey led to his theory of Natural Selection as the process by which life evolves on Earth. Applying the theory to humans in his book, The Descent of Man, cemented Darwin’s position as the face of evolution in the ongoing debate with those who believe in Intelligent Design–that God created us in our present form sometime within the last 10,000 years.

I think….”

By writing that, Darwin could have meant that while he believed, based on how what he’d seen and experienced influenced his thinking, that his new theory might be how life on earth works, but he wasn’t completely sure—he had some doubt. (more…)

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