Wilderness advocates make case

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Every weekend, hordes of vehicles with green-and-white license plates stream westward on Highway 160, carrying bikers, rock-climbers, boaters, hikers, ORV-ers and dogs, all headed for the canyon country of Southeast Utah.

The canyons are a playground for folks of all ages from around the Four Corners. Arches and Canyonlands, the two national parks in that area, are among people’s favorite destinations, but the majority of adventurers head to public lands run by the BLM or U.S. Forest Service. There are fewer use restrictions for these areas, especially concerning motorized vehicle use, camping and access for bikers and pets.

Because of the opportunities available and the stunning scenery, not to mention the sunny weather, many people have come to count the canyons as one of their favorite places to go.

Because of the numbers of recreators from La Plata and Montezuma counties, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a environmental advocacy nonprofit, recently coordinated a major canvassing campaign in Durango which culminated in an evening slide show and celebration for Wild Utah.

The event, held on April 24, the day of Durango’s Earth Day celebration, saw activists, writers, attorneys for SUWA and concerned citizens gathering to exchange words and images depicting the beauty of the area and the importance of protecting it for future generations.

Tom Whalen, assistant coordinator for the Outdoor Pursuits Program at Fort Lewis College, worked with SUWA to put on the event. “Personally, I have a strong love for Utah wilderness and I wanted to do something positive for the canyon country,” he said.

There were also professional reasons, he said. “Our program utilizes the resources of that area. In terms of being good stewards of the land, we needed to able to give something back.”

Whalen contacted Dave Pacheco, canvassing coordinator for SUWA. Knowing that the door-to-door canvass was already planned, Whalen proposed the evening celebration. Whalen soon had two activists lined up to speak.

The first was Amy Irvine McHarg, author and former development director for SUWA. The other was Ken “Seldom Seen” Sleight, Ed Abbey compadre and member of the legendary Monkey Wrench Gang.

Unfortunately, a week before Earth Day, Sleight was thrown from his horse and injured. At the last minute, SUWA contacted local author Ken Wright, who agreed to step in and rant in Sleight’s place.

Whalen opened the evening with his favorite Ed Abbey reading, “Why go to the desert?” Then the four months’ pregnant Irvine McHarg, an off-the-grid resident of Monticello, spoke on the use and preservation of the desert.

”There is a slow erosion of a fragile place happening and it needs to be protected,” she said. “Right now, it can’t take another four years of President Bush’s energy policies. Those of us who live or recreate there owe something to the land. We must find the time to speak out.”

She followed by reading from the prologue to her upcoming book about her life in the red-rock desert. She reminded the audience, “Without wilderness, we are engineering our own physical and spiritual demise.”

Wright, a local celebrity, father and activist, proclaimed, “We are blessed to have public lands.” He read essays regarding the joy of those lands and his anger at user fees. He then presented a piece written by his 8-year-old daughter, Anna, sharing her excitement and enthusiasm during a trip on the San Juan River.

Lastly, Wright shared a piece he had written about his experience on the same river, emphasizing the need to keep some places just as they are: wild.

Franklin Seal, a SUWA organizer based in Moab, discussed how to attain the goal of preservation. He said the biggest threats to wild lands are oil and gas leases and ORVs.

“The Bush administration has made most of the backcountry vulnerable to destruction,” he charged, adding, “ORV’s are allowed access into almost every corner of BLM backcountry.”

SUWA is working on and supporting the Red Rock Heritage Proposal, which offers what they see as a more balanced plan. Essentially, the plan limits ORV use in extremely sensitive areas, yet leaves the majority of terrain open for responsible use.

Along with the speakers, SUWA showed slides of the canyons, the sandstone formations, and folks young and old enjoying themselves there. Also included were photos of pristine areas with tire tracks cutting across them, clearcuts and thumper trucks, the multi-ton vehicles that vibrate the ground in search of oil and gas deposits.

Seal reminded the audience that in the 1970s people could smoke cigarettes anywhere they pleased. Due to an extensive public-safety campaign, that has now changed. He likened the wilderness battle to the smoking one.

SUWA hopes to enlist Durangoans in its fight. The group signed up new members, and instigated the beginning of a local group, potentially called the Four Corners Citizens Advisory Committee, to provide citizen input regarding BLM management plans for the Monticello and Moab ranger districts.

Irvine McHarg said, “People must question where their news is coming from and who is benefiting from that. It is time to move towards questioning and protesting.”

She reminded the audience of the Boston Tea Party. “If we celebrate that example of protesting, then why are people now so against anyone who speaks out?”

When raising her own child, she said, one of her goals will be to teach him or her “to be true to themselves and see when their own selfish desires diminish a greater good.”

Whalen said the evening delivered the message that there are land-management issues in Southeast Utah and people need to get involved if they want to see policy be more environmentally friendly – and if they want to continue to have these beautiful places to play in.

For more information on SUWA or issues in southeastern Utah, contact SUWA.org. For more information on the Four Corners Citizens Advisory Committee, call Tom Whalen at 247-7293.

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From May 2004.