Loathing Of Wilderness Does Not Come Naturally

It’s taught by politicians

The logic of President Bush’s appointment of Mike Leavitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency is this: Leavitt is governor of Utah; Utah despises federal interference; the EPA interferes; therefore Leavitt will disable the EPA.

It’s true that the Republican governor, a former Salt Lake insurance agent, advocated a “conference of the states” to rewrite the U.S. Constitution and that his states’ rights campaign was a reaction more than anything to increased federal protection of Utah wilderness – – perfectly exemplified by Bill Clinton’s creation of the Grand Staircase-Red Rock Canyons National Monument in the Escalante country by executive order during the campaign of 1996.

But I’m not sure the people of Utah, or the Republican West, were decisively behind Leavitt, or, if they were then, that they are now. Utah has more love of wilderness than you think, a sentiment going back to Brigham Young.

This was clear to me during a trip in the Escalante canyons last spring. The backpacker traffic in Coyote Gulch was significantly greater than I had ever seen. We met new people every 10 minutes, it seemed. And the important point is most of them were families or youth groups from Utah, especially from Salt Lake City. I know because I made a point of asking them. At Hamblin Arch a large group of college-age kids entertained themselves with a creative sport: they had tied a climbing rope across the sandy gulch and they were holding a tightrope walking competition.

While the trip did not qualify as wilderness experience, it was encouraging to see so many people enjoying the place. It’s popular. And I didn’t notice any derision of the project at the edge of town: construction of a new federal joint agency recreation headquarters. It’s going to be an economic development of the sort that can’t be convincingly ridiculed, even by the underemployed locals who think sending a bulldozer up a roadless canyon is an act of political courage and gather at the Golden Loop to talk about guns and liberals.

But it occurs to me that what the Clinton administration got started at Escalante is a good example of what the Bush administration opposes, under the premise that we need to take care of existing parks as opposed to using the same money to create new ones (the Bush administration is doing neither).

On the same trip through the natural wonders of southern Utah we also met two uniformed National Park Service personnel, Ranger Bill and Ranger Barbara, who personified the argument against another gimmick in the Bush administration’s implicit intent to disable the national park system. This is the proposal to privatize most of the parks, turning their management over to for-profit contractors. This sometimes is called “outsourcing.”
For about two decades, Ranger Bill has been patroling the Escalante canyons, which are administered by the park service as part of the Glenn Canyon National Recreation Area. He works alone and must walk thousands of miles a year. We met him several years ago in a neighboring canyon, and Ranger Bill is famous for his one-man battle against salt cedars. Wherever he goes in the Escalante country, he cuts them down by hand, sometimes on his days off. His work is not part of the competitive outsourcing equation proposed by the Bush administration. You cannot get private enterprise to cut down salt cedars on its own time.

A few days later, we ran into Ranger Barbara in a remote area of Canyonlands National Park. She also works alone — as the protector of Horseshoe Canyon, which contains probably the oldest, and certainly most mysterious, rock art in the Southwest. Ranger Barbara with her husband live in a trailer on a mesa, and it seems to be a lonely life, except for the canyon where she has worked for two decades, resisting transfers or promotions.

Since there were no other visitors that morning, Ranger Barbara took us on a four-hour tour. She seemed to know every painted figure in the canyon in intimate detail, but she said she saw something new every day. She named dozens of plants, told stories about everything from a cougar kill to the strange visitor who confessed that he was a space alien. She saw a rock with initials newly carved on it — something that had not been there the day before — and buried it and made a note.

Back at the rim of the canyon we thanked Ranger Barbara and she nodded. She said she was doing her job. But of course the knowledge and spirit and dedication and love of the country was not in the job description. You can’t put a price on this sort of pride. You can’t acquire it through competitive outsourcing.

What you get instead is the sort of ranger we met in the parking lot at the base of the Elephant Hills trail in Canyonlands. We had spent three days in the back country and were sitting on the tailgate taking stock. The ranger arrived in a government pickup. He approached in the way that police officers approach suspects. He asked if we had been backpacking, and we said yes. He asked where, and we told him.

He smiled an official smile and pushed up his sunglasses and said, “Do you have a permit?” I pulled it out of the pack. He said that the regulations required that it be visible at all times. And so forth, until he reentered his truck and drove away to find another citizen to harrass.