“Wilderness is a peculiarly western institution. The existence of the wilderness system is an elemental statement by this region of how it differs from other parts of the country, and of the world. Rough and open country matters here. Further, wilderness has a historical dimension… a stark reminder of the joys and barriers of a region that has been the terminus of one of the greatest human migrations in history. It also speaks to the character of our society.”
– Charles Wilkinson, The Eagle Bird: Mapping A New West
By Dan Spomer
Among the failings of our elected officials, their inability to contribute anything positive to the Utah wilderness debate remains a prime example. Stubborn and unwilling to consider dissenting points of view, it appears that the current stalemate may continue for some time. However, the possibilities are enormous. What would happen, for instance, if someone from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) met with a San Juan County commissioner to discuss the issue of Utah wilderness? Would anything positive develop? Intrigued, we set up just such a meeting.
On August 10, 1997, SUWA Issues Director Scott Groene met with San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy here in Bluff. The idea behind the meeting was to put the issue of Utah wilderness on the table and see if there was some “common ground” which could set the stage for future discussion. We were also interested in determining the Utah Navajo viewpoint on this issue, especially with the possibility of wilderness designation on Cedar Mesa. I asked Commissioner Maryboy about the concept of wilderness as it applies to the Navajo people.
Maryboy was candid and open. “I think Navajo families support wilderness, but there are two types the older ones and the younger ones. A lot of the younger ones don’t support wilderness because they work, and the people they work for in this county are telling them that [if] you can’t have mining, access roads, nuclear repositories or energy, you can’t have jobs. You won’t have money. (They say that]the environmentalists are standing in the way of progress. On the other hand, the older people, their philosophy is Mother Earth. Everything should be preserved–it is sacred. Drilling for oil and mining for coal desecrates the environment. In the Aneth area, a lot of people don’t like the oil and gas production and what it has done. People are afraid that once they [the oil companies] leave they are not going to clean up their mess. My constituents are asking me to support wilderness.”
I questioned them both about the current impasse on this issue. Where do we go from here?
Groene remarked; “I think we are better off trying to talk to people in the middle than at the extremes. San Juan County has produced information which it has presented to Congress that is just flat out wrong. For example, they produced maps of the wilderness proposal that included everything. They have shown pictures of roads which, while they are real roads, are not in our proposal. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. The San Juan Record did an article some years ago in which they said you won’t be able to go into wilderness areas if you don’t have a guide! People have been led to believe that H.R. 1500 covers real roads, which it doesn’t. We’re not surprised that people oppose it when they hear that’s what it’s all about.”
Maryboy added; “Most of the support for wilderness in Utah comes from the heavily-populated areas. Most of the rural communities are anti-wilderness. It seems that polarization arises and the groups throw their hands up and walk away. There is strong resistance on both sides, and I have yet to see any movement to bring these people together.
Groene replied; “Yes, I agree. But I do think there have been changes. Ten years ago it was ‘no wilderness.’ That was the attitude of much of Utah. That’s changed. Slowly, support for wilderness is growing. I think there has been better information coming out, and I think the media has been better educated. The BLM is hopefully going to finish its wilderness inventory. I think there’s a definite shift toward protecting wilderness.”
He continued;”I think people are looking and saying, ‘maybe there were 20 million acres of wilderness in southern Utah 40 years ago and it was a hard place to make a living, and now there are six million acres of wilderness left and it’s still a hard place to make a living.’ TWO decades from now, it will still be a tough place to scratch out a living, but the question is, will there be any wilderness left? Destroying the environment has not created sustainable economies. People are going to say that protecting the environment and (creating) wilderness is a good thing for social and spiritual reasons, but you can make a good economic argument for it also.”
Why then, is the opposition to wilderness designation SO fierce?
Maryboy answered; “As far as San Juan County is concerned, I think it is a question of local control. The county sees the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM as vehicles for environmental organizations. They are concerned that no one will be allowed to do anything–they will be locked out of those areas. That’s what I hear from them all the time.”
Groene stated; “When I look at (San Juan County) saying they want freedom, they mean the freedom to do what they want to do and to hell with everyone else. All of us own this land. They want the freedom to fire up a road grader and head out across the public land, no matter what that means to all the rest of us. It is a rather selfish concept of ‘freedom.’ And as much as ‘we’ don’t like the federal government, sometimes that is a good way to protect the rest of us. There are certain rules which are good for society, and one of the ways we implement those rules is through our representative government. There have been times in San Juan County that it has been good to have the (federal) government to protect people who otherwise do not have voices.”
Maryboy responded; “It depends on how you understand the situation (and) what you are talking about when you say you are being free. You can be free to have things to your advantage, but it is freedom for you and not for others.”
When asked about the wilderness issue as it affects his position as County Commissioner, Maryboy mentioned; “About ninety percent of our time as county commissioners is spent dealing with wilderness issues. There is so much need for half the population of the county– housing, infrastructure, health care, education–and yet we choose to spend our time talking about wilderness.”
Groene concurred; “I used to get upset with our congressional delegation because we would have a town meeting in Moab, and they would show up to talk about wilderness. And when the meetings were over they would say, ‘we’ll go back and make speeches against environmentalists. And people would ask, “what about education?” What are you going to do to help us with unemployment?’ Instead of talking about real problems, [they] try to focus on this issue of wilderness and environmentalists.”
Maryboy said; “When I go back to the chapters, I tell it like it is. I don’t try to hide anything. They want to know, ‘Is that all you talk about, wilderness? We need to pave some roads out here.’ I think some of the specific issues have been dealt with as far as I’m concerned sacred sites, access into areas for wood gathering, and so on. You might say that Navajos are ‘pro wilderness.”
Groene added; “I think we do have a common interest in protecting the earth. In terms of protecting lands from some of the most damaging impacts, wilderness designation is a great way to do that. I think where a lot of this confusion came up was when the BLM was doing the resource management plan for this area, back in the late 1980s. Some of the mistrust and concern goes back to some of the things (former county commissioner) Cal Black had done to try and build opposition to the BLM management plan. And it is hard to overcome that. Cal Black told the Native American people that if there were any changes up on Cedar Mesa, they would be hurt. That really put the fear into people. Not surprisingly, Navajo people are a little suspicious of us coming down here and saying, ‘don’t worry, trust us.’ On anything. Maybe we just need to get up there with representatives of the tribe and look at the boundaries to see what specific suggestions the Navajo people have to make. My perception is that wilderness (designation) is not a change, but a mandate to leave things alone, the way they are.”
The subject of the future was brought up. In which direction do we go now? Maryboy summed up his concerns; “The economy is the main thing. People work. How can we promote more jobs? I think people are surprised when they hear that SUWA is not against economic development. Navajos are looking for alternatives, especially now that the pressure is on the legislature for welfare reform–taking people off the welfare system and putting them to work.”
Groene concluded; “I think these (southern Utah) towns should put money into the towns instead of putting money into roads leading out of these towns. You do what the people like Mike Austin did. He owns the Boulder Mountain Lodge (in Boulder, Utah). He seems to be doing really well. He is convincing the local businesses that protecting the environment is a good way for them all to make money. Here’s a guy saying stuff that people are listening to.”
Having spoken extensively with Mr. Austin, I agreed. He has laid out a different way of seeing the future of our public lands, as well as the future of small southern Utah communities which depend on them. The history of the West is replete with examples of communities that bet their futures on mining, oil or ranching. Most of them are gone now, or slowly dying away. It seems clear that another way must be found–another way of looking at and planning for the future. Of all the resources that have been mined, developed, cut down, grazed away or otherwise rendered useless, one yet remains: Utah’s wild lands. But should they be considered a resource to be exploited or as a finished product?
“As Senator Clinton P. Anderson wrote a generation ago, ‘Wilderness is an anchor to windward. Knowing it is there, we can also know that we are still a rich nation, tending to our resources as we should–not a people in despair searching every last nook and cranny of our land for a board of lumber, a barrel of oil, a blade of grass, or a tank of water.’ It is worth wondering, then, about where the wilderness ideal stands with respect to the fundamental values that define us as a people.”
– Charles Wilkinson
–This article first appeared in the September 1997 issue of the Canyon Echo
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