Paradise Found

By T.H. Watkins

Wilderness is shrinking, right? Not in the slickrock canyons of Utah, where activists have discovered that we're richer than we thought.

Beginning in the summer of 1996, platoons of volunteer wilderness surveyors set off into the mountains, mesas, plateaus, and canyons of wild Utah armed with cameras, compasses, topographical maps, and global-positioning-system receivers.

They were there to assess the condition of millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management wildlands, some of which environmentalists have been trying to get placed in the National Wilderness Preservation System for three decades."It was a truly phenomenal effort," Sierra Club volunteer Wayne Hoskisson of Salt Lake City says. "Probably the most comprehensive land survey ever undertaken by volunteers." He and his wife, Gayle, spent nearly two years on the project, as did most of the 300 other people who joined the inventory.

However phenomenal, this was not the first time volunteers had taken measure of the country. In the late 1980s, the Utah Wilderness Coalition—an alliance that includes the Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and more than 150 other organizations—surveyed a huge swath of Utah's unprotected federal lands and found 42 areas totaling 5.7 million acres worthy of the wilderness system. That figure nearly doubled the BLM's recommendation and more than tripled the paltry 1.8 million acres the Utah congressional delegation offered in 1995.

In April 1996, Utah Representative Jim Hansen (R) challenged Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to prove his claim, based on the environmentalists' work, that at least 5 million acres of Utah BLM land did in fact qualify as wilderness. Babbitt responded by initiating a new government survey. (At presstime, the results of the inventory, interrupted at one point by court action, are still unannounced.)

What was a good idea for the Interior Department, the Utah Wilderness Coalition felt, was an even better idea for conservationists, so it promptly launched its own citizen survey. The first time around, limited resources—human and monetary— had prevented volunteers from taking a comprehensive look at places such as the West Desert region in the western part of the state. They hoped to expand their proposal this time around, but feared that many areas in their original 5.7-million-acre proposal would no longer fit the federal definition of wilderness as"an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man," having been trammeled to a fare-thee-well by newly bulldozed roads, off-road- vehicle damage, BLM "range improvements," mining activity, and other marks of human ambition.

Sure enough, after 40,000 aerial and on-the-ground photographs and 55,000 hours of exploration covering everything from the West Desert to the newly established Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument in the south-central part of the state, the coalition announced in July that it would in fact have to drop some wilderness sites from its original proposal. On the other hand, the coalition noted, about 99 percent of its previous inventory still met wilderness standards. "This is a testament to the quality of the original inventory and to years of hard work defending Utah's unprotected de facto wilderness," it reported.

Yes, it was—but now the really good news: the survey discovered more than 3 million additional acres that qualified for wilderness designation, bringing the total to more than 8.8 million acres. The newfound lands will almost certainly be included in H.R. 1500, the current coalition-supported wilderness legislation that has been simmering on congressional back burners since 1989.

The discovery of new wilderness areas in Utah is a Cinderella story for the land. Consider this: more than 60 years ago, wilderness advocate Robert Marshall of the U.S. Forest Service did his own quick inventory of all the major remaining roadless areas of the United States outside Alaska—everything 300,000 acres or larger in forest regions and everything 500,000 acres or larger in desert regions. Although he omitted the Everglades and Southern Appalachian Highlands, his total of 91.6 million acres was the core from which much of the Lower 48's present 46.7 million acres of wilderness was carved. About 58 million acres in the 1936 survey have never been part of the system. Some of this ended up in national monuments, national parks, or wildlife refuges, but most of it was never protected in any way.

We have since lost unknown millions of those once-wild acres to roads and highways, timber production, range development, and mines. Rivers within them have been dammed and riparian areas mangled by cattle or poisoned by mine waste, chunks of natural estate transformed into real estate, wetlands drained and polluted by agriculture, old-growth groves stripped by the timber industry, juniper-piqon forests chained off the land at the behest of the livestock industry, wildlife everywhere poisoned, pressured, and imperiled. Millions of wild acres are gone forever, for all human intents and purposes, and the shadow of that loss has haunted the environmental movement ever since.

But the news from Utah stands as a validation of hope. More than 15 million acres of Marshall's 1936 survey were in the regions of Utah inventoried by the coalition. Few modern state governments have done more to allow and even encourage the systematic destruction of wild country than that of Utah, and few congressional delegations have been more resistant to wilderness designation than those that have dominated the Beehive State over most of the 34 years since passage of the Wilderness Act. Under the circumstances, then, we probably should have been surprised to learn that there were even 5.7 million acres left that still qualified for inclusion in the coalition's original proposal. To discover now that nearly 9 million acres remains is like finding the Hope Diamond in a litter box.

True, it is not likely to be any easier to convince the present Congress to endorse 8.8 million acres of wilderness than it has been to move a proposal for 5.7 million. But we're richer than we knew, beatified by this wondrous geographic puzzle of canyons, of upthrust plateaus and 1,000-foot walls with ragged shards of mountains piercing the fragile skin of earth, of multicolored rocks all layered and bent and broken, of curling creeks and rivers dammed by beavers and shaded by grandfather cottonwoods, of deep skies and horizon-wide sweeps of sunlit emptiness, of gracile unknown places where darkness hides and will not tell its name.

T. H. Watkins is the author of hundreds of magazine articles and 28 books, among them Stone Time-Southern Utah: A Portrait and a Meditation (Clear Light Publishers, 1994) and The Redrock Chronicles, forthcoming next year. This article was previously included in Sierra magazine.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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