Archive for April, 2010

A lot has happened in the week since attending the first of the San Juan County Public Lands Discussions. Especially in my own mind. We’ve begun a series of blog posts to keep our supporters advised about what we’re experiencing during this process.  As we prepare for the next meetings—May 5 and 6—I’m wondering how best to spend our allotted time.


Nokai Dome -- San Juan County


Although we’ve been asked to comment specifically on the areas we listed as priorities along with the uses and conflicts associated with those areas, we’ve focused on more general concepts.  Last week, I focused my remarks on values, specifically those mentioned in the Wilderness Act of 1964.  I talked about three values—a) primeval/primitive (about how more people lived in what is now San Juan County 800 years ago than live there now, and how for thousands of years, primitive cultures thrived there continuously, compared to the 130 years the current population has eked out a living, and perhaps we have something to learn from our early ancestors); b) Natural processes (experience in the wilderness  is being face to face with the life force, and suddenly part of a much larger and more fascinating world, and yes, according to Mormon scripture, seeing “God moving in all his majesty and power”); and c) opportunities for solitude (especially in this world of growing noise, which according to George Prochnik’s book, In Pursuit of Silence, could be responsible for everything from high blood pressure and depression to our current political polarization.)

I’m fairly comfortable with the fact that no one is attending these meetings in an effort to make up their own mind about wilderness in San Juan County and that regardless of how articulate we are about wilderness, there will be little if any metanoia (I love this word which means “a transformative change of heart, a movement of the mind”). Still, this may be as good a venue as any to introduce new ideas articulating why wilderness matters.

Listening to wilderness opponents go on and on about access—wilderness designation is nothing but the closing down of public lands to the public– has solidified for me something I’ve heard and suspected for a long time: we rarely talk publically about what we experience in the wilderness and why we care so deeply. We’ve always been clear that wilderness needs protection whether or not we ever get to actually see it.

Perhaps in the next series of meetings I’ll focus on the roads that will remain open even if the maximum amount of wilderness is designated.  I’ll talk about how important these roads are to anyone who needs access to what may actually be the “middle of nowhere”, if only to park, pull out a lawn chair, and sit watching life working at full force, filling up with perfect air and time and the most massive form of hope.


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Early last month, the Utah Wilderness Coalition got a letter from Robert Bennett, one Utah’s two U.S. Senators, inviting us to be involved in process to determine the future of public lands in San Juan County. Based on the definition of “Wilderness” in the 1964 Act, there are nearly 1.5 million acres of it in this corner of Southern Utah. There are nearly infinite uninterrupted views, rivers and creeks (named and unnamed), massive darkness (at night), and deep blue skies the size of heaven (during the day). There are thousands of sites where the line drawn between now and our prehistoric past are thin and vague. There are red rock towers and buttes, smooth canyon walls, and mesas of interminable width and length. There are big horn sheep and mountain lions and hundreds of birds depending on the season. Throughout, the solitude is nearly the thickness of water. There are many roads.

Wednesday, I’ll be going to Monticello, Utah, for the first in a series of eight meetings, each one designed to address the “ecological, cultural, social, and economic values” in specific regions of the county.

To be invited to these meetings we had to submit a list of our priority areas, ranked in order of importance. At first this seemed like asking parents to rank their children.   But we got strategic.  We realized that due to the diligence on the part of many organizations dedicated to preserving wilderness on one hand, and on the other, the growing acceptance of wilderness as part of the status quo, many of the most significant areas are likely to be suggested for designation by many others involved in this process.  We prioritized our list according to areas that might not otherwise be included as part of the discussions.

The Glen Canyon Wilderness is at the top of our list. I’ve spent time in parts of this region, wandering among sandstone outcroppings, following the shadows of birds toward clouds that at first seem permanent and close. I’ve explored deep rocky canyons whose names (Cheesebox, Gravel) have deflected attention, leaving them alone and full of wildness. Last week when I returned from a weekend at the far edge of this wilderness, I told a friend that I’d been to the most remote place in America.

“Probably not as remote as part of Alaska,” he said and I agreed. And then he said that officially the most remote place in America is in the southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, any point of which is “at least twelve miles from a road”.  He’s right, if that’s how a “remote” place is defined.

I mentioned that there are many roads in and around the wild areas in San Juan County. There illegal roads which off-highway vehicles (All Terrain Vehicles, 4WD vehicles, and dirt bikes) have pioneered. But there are legal roads which have been used for generations, but actually create the “opportunity for solitude” guaranteed by the Wilderness Act.  Otherwise, these places are just too far away.

When I talk about roads at Wednesday’s meeting, I’ll be talking about the threats of illegal roads on the values that Senator Bennett want us to discuss. I’ll talk about how illegal roads make it possible for professional traffickers in ancient artifacts to desecrate the graves of our ancestors. And about how  use of these roads in these times of a warming climate create dust that fouls the air and coats high mountain snowpack with dust, causing it to melt sooner. I’ll talk about how what we need are large intact areas to protect biodiversity, remind us where we come from and what is essential.  I might read my favorite Mormon scripture, which I insist is about wilderness:

The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God.  Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand? Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving  in his majesty and power.  (from Doctrine and Covenants Section 88 vs. 45-47)

I won’t have much time, so I probably won’t talk about how I believe that since we evolved in wilderness we are at our best out there. Or Thoreau and how “in wildness is the preservation of the world”, and isn’t now a good time to be thinking about this?

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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