My Cry for Wilderness

One woman’s plea to protect Utah’s canyonlands

Content Tools

In 1995, despite overwhelming opposition from Utah citizens and from conservationists everywhere, Utah’s congressional delegates introduced the Utah Public Lands Management Act (H.R. 1745/S. 884), which would designate only 1.8 million acres of Utah public land as protected wilderness, compared to the 5.7 million acres that an earlier proposal, America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act (H.R. 1500), would protect. Poet and author Terry Tempest Williams responded in a speech before the National Parks and Conservation Association. 

Whenever I close my eyes, I see the desert’s beauty. Images of Utah’s red rock canyons rising upward like praying hands send me dreaming. And when I awake, eyes open, I know a world that is silent, pristine, and wild awaits me, holds my spirit, returns flesh to slickrock. I feel the bedrock of creation beneath my feet.

These lands, unsurpassed in the world, encompass canyons, slickrock narrows, vast tablelands, cliffs, mountain ranges, and wild rivers. Bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and other wild animals range from national parklands to lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Only a few generations ago, Utah was settled on spiritual grounds. It is ironic that Utah must now be protected on spiritual grounds for generations to come.

The Utah Public Lands Management Act of 1995, presented to Congress last summer by two Utah Republicans, Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative Jim Hansen [chair of the House National Parks, Forests, and Lands Subcommittee], designates as wilderness only 1.8 million of the 22 million acres currently managed by BLM. Both the Senate and the House bills, S. 884 and H.R. 1745, promise to open up an area twice the size of Rhode Island, 1.4 million acres, to oil and gas exploration, coal and uranium mining, off-road vehicles, communication towers, and the possibility of dams. Its “hard release” language also closes the door on any further protection of wilderness in Utah. What we have been offered is not a wilderness bill at all, but a federal zoning act.

Local citizens became frustrated by the politics coloring BLM’s process for recommending what wilderness should be set aside for protection. After sitting around kitchen tables with maps and pencils, they chose areas they knew and set out in a labor of love to document the state of the wild, to create a vision from both their hearts and their intellects, and then come back together with knowledge gleaned from the ground itself. They walked these boundaries and created their own inventory, what they saw as a fair representation of wilderness in Utah. The result was America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act (H.R. 1500), a wilderness proposal for 5.7 million acres, which was then adopted by the Utah Wilderness Coalition, an organization of state, regional, and national conservation groups, including the National Parks and Conservation Association.

Planning during the wilderness review last spring were in favor of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. A majority of Utahns wanted 5.7 million acres of wilderness, not less. Jim Hansen says this legislation is dead. So what happened?

Quite simply, the Utah congressional delegation turned its back on its constituents, and expert and impassioned testimony from scientists around the state had no impact. Hansen shut them down, saying, “Wilderness has nothing to do with biology.” Their voices have been ignored and so have these lands. Listen to the names of some of these forgotten places: Labyrinth Canyon, Arch Canyon, Comb Ridge, Owl and Fish Creek, Paria, Parunuweap, Moquith Mountain, Wahweap, Nipple Bench, Burning Hills, the San Rafael Swell. To walk in this country is to live inside poetry. Native grace.

Red rock wilderness is both the bedrock land of southern Utah and a metaphor of unlimited possibility. Something in the world can remain untamed. These questions must be asked: How can we cut ourselves off from the very source of our creation? And can we truly survive the worship of our own destructiveness?

As a citizen of Utah and of these United States, I do not believe that this is a wilderness bill the majority of Utahns or Americans recognize, want, or desire. I do not believe that this is a wilderness bill that honors or respects the natural laws required for a healthy environment. And I do not believe that this is a wilderness bill that takes an empathetic stance toward our future.

When we look at the undermining of our public lands, whether it is wilderness in Utah or our national parks and forests, we must realize that the debate over Utah wilderness is not about economics. This debate is not about “taking back the West,” as the proponents of the Wise Use movement would have us believe. It is about putting ourselves in accordance with nature, about consecrating these lands by remembering our relationships to them.

Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from. For those of us who so love these lands in Utah, who recognize America’s red rock wilderness as a sanctuary for the preservation of our souls, the Utah Public Lands Management Act of 1995 is the beginning of a forgetting—a forgetting we may never be able to reclaim.

Reprinted from National Parks, November-December 1995.