By Christopher Solomon
The American West is our handsome conundrum—too beautiful to use, too useful to be left alone, as a Colorado journalist once put it. In the past, the landscape seemed so enormous that conflicting dreams could find room in its whistling emptiness. Now there’s not much left that we haven’t touched, and we argue about how to manage what remains—a quarrel over whose dreams should come first.
Nowhere is the argument louder than in the creased country of eastern Utah, a place you know even if you’ve never been there: stone arch and sunburnt canyon, perfect desert sky. The area is home to marquee national parks like Arches and Canyonlands, but much more of it exists as sprawls of federal land that, taken together, are larger than many eastern states. Some people look at the region’s deep slots, peaks, and antelope flats and are inspired to protect them from development. Others hunger for what lies beneath: natural gas, oil, and potash.
If conservation is a tricky project in today’s rural West, with a resurgent Sagebrush Rebellion leading to events like the armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, it’s particularly confounding in Utah, where, for the better part of a century, a war over wilderness has been fought. Recently, during travels through small eastern Utah towns like Moab and Vernal and Blanding, I met more than one Utahan whose pioneer ancestors had arrived by wagon train and who still couldn’t bring themselves to utter the word “wilderness,” famously defined in the 1964 Wilderness Act as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Instead they called it “the W-word,” and they spat it out when they said it. In Utah more than other states, environmentalists and their foes wield just enough power to stymie each other. The toll has been great: enemies have grown gray squatting in the same trenches their fathers dug, and still the land remains unconquered by either side.
Picture: CGP Grey (2009-08-23T06-58-08 — DSC_0083 4892819243) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons