My Cry for Wilderness

One woman’s plea to protect Utah’s canyonlands


| May-June 1996



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?