Thursday, January 5, 2017

An Act of Faith

The Bear's Ears Monument. A testimony to Utah's
unique place as a home for us in the past, present and future.
The quote in the header of this blog was chosen based on my deep belief that nature and wilderness are more than hobbies for me, they are existential elements of my being. In light of recent events surrounding southeastern Utah, the quote also holds some topical relevance. Another treasured corner of my state has been designated as a National Monument and an examination of why this is so important to me and many others seems necessary as many on the opposing side, some local, some national, question whether anyone in Utah wants this. My answer is an emphatic, "YES!"

When I arrived in the west nearly 18 years ago, my scope of wilderness was defined by very contrived experiences in confined spaces. I may feel some kinship with nature in a state park carved out of the Door County Peninsula, or I might feel a measure of vulnerability spending a few days skiing in the savage winters along the shores of Lake Superior. That was my experience with "wild" and "untamed".

Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness.
Then I arrived in Idaho. I witnessed a wilderness gospel that transcended anything preached in the confines of Wisconsin's Nicolet National Forest or the backroads of New York's Finger Lake Region. I absorbed the testament of the Sawtooth Mountains and Frank Church River of No Return Wildernesses, the latter of which, when viewed in terms of area, encompasses the most remote territory in the U.S. outside of Alaska. To travel the 80 some river miles on the Salmon through the heart of this wilderness, you would have to circumnavigate about 370 miles by car. My proximity to these cathedrals of nature made me a true wilderness acolyte.

Enjoying happy hour in the legacy left
by Frank Church.
With my move to Utah just over 10 years ago, I joined a new parish with different, but equally powerful examples of nature's glory. While Idaho's vast central region was a blockade of mountains and rivers that had been interrupting passage to the Pacific since Lewis and Clark, Utah presented an inverse, but no less difficult geography. Deep meandering canyons divide the Colorado Plateau's desert into large isolated chunks of desert. Crossing to the other side of the Colorado River south of Moab requires long pilgrimages to the remote missions in Hite or Bullfrog. And witnessing the filigreed intricacy of The Wave just south of the border in Arizona demands patience and dedication, not just in the procession through an unforgiving desert on foot, but also in the faith that a permit to see this wonder would be granted.

With President Obama's executive action to create the Bear's Ears National Monument, another corner of our state has been sanctified. In the eyes of us wilderness disciples, this decision validates our faith. Many opponents question the designation. They feel it ignored the rights of those who call the region containing Bear's Ears home. Certainly I can't pretend to call Bear's Ears home, but do the residents of nearby Bluff and Blanding have any more right to call it home?

I'll return to the quote at the top of this page. Yes, nature is home-- our home. Snyder didn't envision nature as parceled off plots for our personal refuge. There is no boundary on nature where one person's opinion ceases to matter and another's begins. Nature belongs to us all and it provides a home that stretches beyond the Wasatch Front, Colorado Plateau, Intermountain West, Continental US and on and on.

The Wave exemplifies just how amazing a seemingly
mundane desert can be.
Xenophobia is not exclusive to the right. On both sides of our polarized spectrum, we often see outsiders and visitors as threatening our home. I feel this anxiety every time I go to Alta. Out-of-staters clog the canyon, greenhorns stop in the middle of a traverse, and I once nearly lost it when I overheard a stranger wish that Alta would grade out the High Traverse for easier access and protection of his skis. As someone who routinely hits the Lift House for extensive base welds, I can say, with great conviction, I have never wished for the High T to be manicured.

Many of us Altaholics get possessive of our "home", so I can appreciate what some anti-monument activists feel. But what matters most to me is that special places like Alta, Bear's Ears, or the Jumbo Valley in British Columbia [watch Jumbo Wild on Netflix if you haven't] are viewed not as local treasures, or regional treasures, or even national treasures, but world treasures. That sentiment understandably upsets those who see President Obama's choice as a threat to their livelihood. Not only that, but I will recognize the action as a stinging contradiction of their ideas of how nature should be managed, but using your proximity to an area as an entitlement for environmental molestation seems self-centered.

Introspectively, I have tried to find a point of understanding, a parallel in my own life, that matches the anger fomenting from the other side of the debate. I don't have to look very far. It's on the calendar as January 20th.

That may seem drastic, but I have thought long and hard about the compromises I might make for the preservation of the wild. For example, would I trade Alta's snowboard ban for the preservation of Grizzly Gulch and Flagstaff Mountain? Would I trade mountain biking in Fisher Creek to ensure wilderness protections in the Sawtooth and White Cloud ranges of Idaho?

Who are any of us to say that responsibility towards natures starts and stops on a property line. It surrounds us all. Gary Snyder didn't want us to see nature as our home in the possessive sense. The environment is not a plot in which we establish our dominion. He wants us to see the entire system of nature as a gift that surrounds us every moment of our life. We have all been given a home.

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