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THE UTAH WILDERNESS ACT IS 25 YEARS OLD!

   Have you hiked into a wild canyon to explore country that was so incredible there could be no way anyone could not see the need to protect it as Wilderness? Did you write so many letters, using carbon paper, Wite Out, or a computer’s printer with continuous, sprocket paper, to Utah’s governor, the Congressional delegation, and other members of subcommittees in Washington, D.C. that the responses to your letters form a brittle base in your rusty file cabinet? Maybe you have binders full of Kodachrome slides you took to document the wild places you wanted to see included in the Utah Wilderness bill. Do you recall how unreal it felt to finally testify at a wilderness hearing on Utah forest lands and stand in support of incredible wild land?

Following our annual September Rendezvous of the High Uintas Preservation Council, I hiked with a clutch of friends into the yet unprotected Lakes Roadless Area of the Uinta Mountains. A tradition that carries an unspoken message that the work to protect wilderness on the Uintas is nowhere near done, the short hike took us to a perch on sunny boulders facing the grand, rugged wall of alpine-lit Kletting and A-1 Peaks. At that sheer western wall begins the High Uintas Wilderness, flagship of the 1984 Utah Wilderness Act. It is the state’s largest Forest Service Wilderness Area, the critical headwaters of rivers born in Utah, and the rich home of a vast diversity of life- plants, mammals large and small, avian species, amphibians, reptiles, and secret forested drainages.

On top of the world, I wondered... if the Utah Wilderness Act had not been pursued, would the Uintas be protected today? It is not possible to just begin a wilderness bill in a season and see it completed by the next. The groundwork was set long before the trips to Washington, D.C. Reams of letters describing wild places were written in circles of friends in backyards. Support came in from countless conservation groups. Slide shows were hauled from government officials’ offices to library presentations to civic clubs to agency map sessions. Fundraisers were held and phone bills swelled. Mailings were constant.

A decade after the Utah Wilderness Act passed, I watched truck loads of storage boxes of the history of the Utah Wilderness Association’s role in that exciting campaign being loaded and delivered to the Special Collections in the Merrill Library of Utah State University. If you wanted to do research for a book or article on the battle for Utah’s Forest wilderness, you had to check out one file at a time and sit nearby to peruse the material. Today anyone can visit the astounding UWA collection online. Beware: there are 100,000s of pages to examine-- all a testament to the years of devotion to wilderness Utahns gave to protect our historic first batch of Forest Service Wilderness Areas.

There were some environmentalists who balked at the bill, thinking nothing less than the full acreage we all felt qualified would “do.” But that just wouldn't- couldn’t- happen in the climate of the early ‘80s. There would be no Wilderness protected in Utah today, I believe, if we had held out for perfection. We saw wild places that were threatened, slipping away in poor management practices. It was critical to stop the bleeding. And we did.

Just read the articles in this newsletter to see how the political climate has changed. Remember asking in every letter you addressed to the Forest Service or a congressman that your letter be included in “the public record?” Is there such a record anymore? Do they answer our letters, do we meet in their offices, or do they even tolerate the wilderness discussion? In fact, are there any constituents “of merit” other than those who ride noisy, destructive Grizzlies into the backcountry? Remember the days of arguing conflicts between horsemen and hiker? It’s a different world, one in which the paltry Forest Service budget for outfitting their own law enforcement with 4-wheelers and snowmobiles of a high tech capacity to nab trespassing, high-marking outlaws can’t compete. Motorized lawlessness continues to compromise the wild. Disrespect for solitude and wild creatures’ homes is rampant.

Recently, along with many other Americans, I watched Ken Burns’ outstanding story of the long battles to protect places that cried out to be saved. I watched John Muir’s face through tears. His words of conviction were those of a warrior. I imagined our nation without National Park protection for wild, incredible places like Yellowstone’s Mirror Plateau, Yosemite’s Clouds Rest, and Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky. I thought of the battle we fought for the gems of Utah’s forests. Given the make-up of our delegation and their pals on the county commissions, it was not possible to see designated all we knew deserved to be saved. But we did it, friends. If you were a part of that fight, you know what I mean. That we won Wilderness protection for a dozen deserving wild places- including the High Uintas- 25 years ago is nothing short of a miracle. For that we can be so grateful.

Many of us were in our twenties and thirties, hiking new ranges, marking maps, taking in the long view of new country beyond description in beauty and wildness. We had no cell phones and didn’t expect a chopper to come rescue us if the going got rough. We ran our fingers over topo lines on oversized, tattered maps, not sleek GPS gizmos. We had a jack and lots of water, not OnStar. Now the youngest of us are pushing 60. The mountains weren’t forgiving to our knees and our packs wore down our spines. But our love of the wild is forever. Whether we get out there or not, it is all about keeping wild country WILD.

I met a woman in Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness when I was a Forest Service wilderness ranger aeons ago. She sat on a boulder beside the trail, picking at gorp, grinning at the uniformed woman trudging up the hot trail. I dropped my heavy pack beside hers in the shade of a grand pine and listened. She had crossed the Sawtooths and was making her solo way through the Wildernesses of America. At 70 she was strong, beautiful and inspiring. I’ll never forget her ecstatic praise of the rugged country she had seen and anticipated on the River of No Return.

We are a band of warriors who can look with joy at the country we saved-- for the lives that experience it as the only home they have and for the humans who leave no mark when they leave. Here’s to the UTAH WILDERNESS ACT at 25!

Margaret Pettis


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