Being Green in the Land of the Saints
In the heartland of the Mormon Church, a new movement is taking root
MEANDER CANYON, UTAH — Straddling the side of a rubber raft, I watch the brown-green water of the Colorado River skim the sole of my foot. The grating whine of an outboard motor drowns the serenity of red-rock cliffs and willow-fringed sandbars. Our fleet — two flotillas, each consisting of three rafts lashed together and one motor — put in at Potash, about 10 miles from Moab, earlier in the day. The rafts are piled high with brightly colored dry bags, large silver coolers and three dozen people.
Two days from now, below the confluence of the Green and the Colorado, we will cut the rafts loose to run the legendary rapids of Cataract Canyon. But today and tomorrow, the motors will push us through flat water, and we’re lost in anticipation, lounging in the sun.
I use this time to pry into the belief systems of the leaders of this expedition, both of whom are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons. One of them, 28-year-old Chris Peterson, crouches in the bottom of the boat, grasping a folder full of pamphlets and newsletters. Tan and lean, he answers my questions thoughtfully, but his eyes follow passing boats: He’s looking for an opportunity to spread some gospel.
Peterson isn’t cruising the river for Mormon converts; his message is a much harder sell in Utah. As director of the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Glen Canyon Institute, Peterson advocates draining Lake Powell. The reservoir, which we’ll drift into at the end of our trip, flooded Glen Canyon after Glen Canyon Dam was built 40 years ago. Its purpose is to guarantee that Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico uphold their end of the Colorado River Compact and deliver 8.2 million acre-feet of water to California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico each year (HCN, 11/10/97: A tale of two rivers). The dam’s turbines generate enough energy to supply 350,000 homes. And the reservoir, which spans 186 miles on the Utah-Arizona state line, attracts 2 to 3 million visitors each year.
Outside of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, few places are considered more sacrosanct in Utah than Lake Powell. Most middle-class families have hauled their kids down to the lake at least once and rented a plush houseboat for the week. Many go three or four times a year to water-ski and cliff-jump in the red-rock-rimmed reservoir. Talk of draining this treasured vacation home is pure heresy.
Chris Peterson grew up in Provo, which he calls “Lake Powell Central” because of the reservoir’s popularity among locals. On summer weekends, trains of RVs and pickup trucks towing speedboats head south down Interstate 15 toward the lake. Most of Peterson’s childhood friends have been part of the exodus to Lake Powell, and he has been hard-pressed to persuade them to sacrifice their favorite vacation spot. “I know people who recognize the problems with the reservoir, but they don’t care,” says Peterson. “They’re more interested in their own pleasure than what is right and wrong.”
Richard Ingebretsen, the 47-year-old founder of the Glen Canyon Institute and the other leader of this river trip, says he gets a lot of flak for his steadfast support for such an unpopular cause. He’s often condemned as “crazy” or a “radical environmental extremist.” He says the last time he endured so many verbal attacks was as a Mormon missionary in Washington, D.C., back in 1974 and 1975.
But, as Mormons have since the early days, the duo takes adversity and spins it into deeper conviction for their cause. “It makes me proud to stand up for what I believe in,” says Ingebretsen, a medical doctor and a physics professor at the University of Utah. He’s not your typical river rat. Sitting on the side of a nearby raft, he looks like he’s wearing professional “dress casual,” with his white collared shirt, navy blue shorts and black sport sandals over white crew socks.
As a Boy Scout in the 1960s, he visited the now legendary Glen Canyon before the reservoir was filled; when he returned as an adult, he was outraged by what he saw as the desecration of one of God’s wonders. Call it a revelation: Ingebretsen decided Glen Canyon should be restored. In 1995 — with no previous experience as an environmental activist — he launched the Glen Canyon Institute, giving new hope to many environmentalists who had assumed the canyon was lost forever.
Today, Ingebretsen and Peterson push for draining the reservoir with all the zeal and finesse of practiced missionaries. They hold meetings and pass out brochures, and they lead a dozen rafting and backpacking trips each year to let people catch glimpses of what Glen Canyon was.
On the third day of our trip, we run the gantlet: 25 named rapids that drop steeply through Cataract Canyon. The whitewater flies and the adrenaline charges through everyone’s veins, but even in the excitement, Ingebretsen doesn’t lose sight of his mission. Eating lunch on a sandbar, we meet an Outward Bound group, and Ingebretsen invites them to come over to our camp in the evening for a lesson about Glen Canyon Dam, offering bribes of Popsicles and apple pies.
After dinner that night, the Outward Bounders join our group, which is an unusual mixture of die-hard drain-the-lakers, parents with young children, and a passel of LDS college students from Ingebretsen’s neighborhood. Ingebretsen fires up a gas-powered generator to run a DVD player, and shows the Glen Canyon Institute film, Let the River Run, on a makeshift movie screen assembled from a white bedsheet and two poles. The dark desert night lights up with images of mossy sandstone pools, great blue herons and sinuous side canyons. The late environmentalist David Brower and river activist Katie Lee narrate the film, describing the “sacred places” they visited in Glen Canyon before it was flooded.
Ingebretsen and Peterson don’t appeal to religion to make their arguments against the dam. They tell the group that the dam is not necessary to supply water to states in the lower Colorado River Basin; that the reservoir loses enough water to evaporation every year to supply the city of Los Angeles; that it is rapidly being choked with sediment; and that it is killing the ecosystems of the Grand Canyon. And the Outward Bound kids are inspired. Many of them linger after the film to talk and take some of Peterson’s reading materials.
But to me, Peterson and Ingebretsen confide that they are driven by spiritual imperatives. Most Mormons, says Peterson, “see the earth as something to use and to tame. I reject that idea entirely. This is God’s creation. We are meant to be stewards.”
“We are on this earth to be judged by how we take care of each other and how we take care of the planet,” says Ingebretsen.
The two Latter-day Saints are unusual. Utah — one of the most conservative states in the West — is not known for its environmental ethic, and Mormonism has often been dealt the blame. But today, some Mormons are trying to show their fellow church members that environmentalism actually has deep roots in their religious teachings.
Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart.
—The Doctrine and Covenants, 59:18
Officially, the LDS Church is politically neutral on environmental issues, says church spokesman Coke Newell. “If the church takes a position, it is seen as throwing its weight around in Utah,” he says. The church respects its members’ diversity of opinions, says Newell, though it will take a stand on issues it considers “moral.” Hence, Utah’s alcohol laws border on prohibition, and gay adoption has been effectively banned.
Speaking for himself, Newell says the scarcity of eco-conscious Mormons in the West is “a cultural thing, much more than a doctrinal thing. Any group of people is going to reflect the culture where they grew up.”
Mormons in other parts of the country and the world may be more likely to be outspoken advocates for environmental protection. But in the West, most Mormons tie their faith to a culture that, historically, had to subdue the land to survive.
Mormonism, in fact, was for a long time almost synonymous with the pioneering spirit. Founded in 1830 by a young New Yorker, Joseph Smith, the church spent its early years on the move. The Mormons moved from New York to Ohio, Missouri and Illinois, each time trying to set down roots, and each time being uprooted and forced out by people suspicious of their ways.
Smith was killed in Illinois by an anti-Mormon mob, and his successor as church president, Brigham Young, led the Saints farther west. The Mormon pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, and they quickly set about irrigating the arid landscape. After two decades of persecution, the Saints had finally found a place where they could practice their beliefs in peace, a place so desolate and dry that the late writer Wallace Stegner, in his 1942 book, Mormon Country, called it “the land nobody wanted.”
Young saw the unfolding of prophecy from the book of Isaiah: a desert that would “blossom like a rose” as the Saints built Zion, an earthly home fit for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
But even during the early tame-the-wilderness days, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young frequently reminded the Saints of their roles as stewards of God’s creation. Young once told a congregation, “The earth is very good in and of itself, and has abided a celestial law, consequently we should not despise it, nor desire to leave it, but rather desire and strive to obey the same law that the earth abides.”
Today, the days when Saints scraped out a meager existence in the wilderness are long past, but their reputation as people determined to dominate nature persists. Bill McKibben remarked in his 1989 book, The End of Nature, that “Mormons have made a great project of subduing nature, erecting some towns in places so barren and dry and steep that only missionary zeal to conquer the wild could be the motivation.”
The late Edward Abbey was a harsher critic. In his novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, the supervillain is a Mormon bishop, J. Dudley Love, a self-righteous vigilante who wages a holy war against a gang of environmental activists.Environmentalists like Abbey certainly contributed to the divide between Mormons and the environmental movement in the West, and encouraged the prevailing notion that you can’t be a good Mormon and an environmentalist, too.
It’s a dangerous notion, because the church wields tremendous political power. With members tithing 10 percent of their incomes to it, the church is the financial equivalent of a Fortune 500 company, bigger than Nike or Gap, according to Time magazine. The church spends money building new chapels and temples, but it also invests large amounts in church-owned businesses, and it lobbies the Utah Legislature on a few issues.
The Saints are also an influential voting bloc, claiming 73 percent of the population in Utah and 25 percent of the population in the Intermountain West. And politically, they fall predominantly on the conservative side. About 85 percent of active church members in Utah, for example, associate themselves with the Republican Party, according to the church-owned Deseret Morning News.
This solidarity is reflected in their elected officials. In Utah, the governor and the entire congressional delegation are Mormon. The Salt Lake Tribune estimates that 90 percent of the state Legislature is LDS. Half of Idaho’s congressional delegation — one senator and one representative — is Mormon. California has three Mormons in Congress, Nevada has two, and Arizona, New Mexico and Oregon each have one. While there are a few notable exceptions — among them, Utah Rep. Jim Matheson, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid and New Mexico Rep. Tom Udall, all Democrats — many of them have loudly criticized environmentalists.
Utah’s Jim Hansen is the poster child of anti-environmental politics. Hansen, a conservative Republican and former Mormon bishop, vigorously opposed wilderness protection in Utah during his 10 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He frequently referred to endangered species in the Colorado River, such as the Colorado pikeminnow, as “trash fish.” He even promoted a “Human Protection Act,” which would have protected people from those overbearing endangered species.
Hansen liked to remind his constituents that the GOP was the party with righteousness on its side. (This belief is so prevalent among Mormons in the West that in 1998, a church official had to announce that it’s OK for Mormons to be Democrats.) When Hansen retired from Congress in 2002, wilderness proponents rejoiced. But he might be back: Hansen is running for governor of Utah in 2004.
Perhaps a better representative of mainstream Mormon views on the environment is the popular former governor of Utah, Mike Leavitt, R, who recently became the new chief of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. When his nomination was announced in Denver, Leavitt told The Associated Press, “To me, there is an inherent human responsibility to care for the earth.” But judging from his environmental record as governor, his sense of duty to the environment depends on the issue.
Leavitt took a strong stand against a widely unpopular proposal to store nuclear waste on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation, and he supported a locally backed San Rafael Swell National Monument and a moderate wilderness bill. But Leavitt also promoted the wetlands-destroying Legacy Highway, undid preliminary wilderness designations without public input, and refused to force the nation’s most toxic polluter to comply with emissions standards (HCN, 9/1/03: Mr. Middle Ground gets called to Washington).
Leavitt “reflects, pretty well, the mainstream Utah and Mormon attitude toward the environment,” says Lavarr Webb, who served as policy deputy during the governor’s first term.
In his political column for the Deseret Morning News, Webb called environmentalists who challenged Leavitt’s EPA nomination a “sadistic little band of character assassins.” He says most Mormons in Utah, like himself, “have a balanced, middle-of-the-road position on the environment.” They love the outdoors and strongly support scouting programs, but they can’t support proposals like draining Lake Powell or designating 9.1 million acres of wilderness; such steps would hinder economic development, he says.
Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone, a member of the Quorum of the Seventy and the president of the Logan Temple, best sums up the religion’s conflicting views on the environment: “We ought to take care of Mother Earth. She groans under the weight of our actions,” says Featherstone, who is regarded as one of the more green church leaders because of his passion for the outdoors and scouting.
But when asked about issues such as draining Lake Powell or protecting wilderness, he quickly changes his tune: “My personal feeling is that God created the earth for man. We have to survive. The earth isn’t worth anything if it can’t provide for us.”
For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures.
—The Doctrine and Covenants, 104:13
Richard Ingebretsen and Chris Peterson of the Glen Canyon Institute aren’t the only Mormons who are fighting for the land for its own sake. Spend some time with Utah’s environmental community, and you’ll find Saints in some surprising places.
Larry Young, for example, is not the person you might expect to be the head of what he calls Utah’s “punk-adolescent environmental group.” A descendent of Brigham Young and a former BYU sociology professor, Young is the executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. SUWA calls for protecting another 9.1 million acres of wilderness in a state that has protected only 800,000 acres to date — the least of any Western state.
“The most common reaction I get from environmentalists when they learn that I am LDS is bewilderment about why there are so few Mormons in the conservation movement,” says Young. “There is a very comfortable space to be openly politically conservative within the Mormon Church in Utah and in the Intermountain West; there is not a comfortable space to be openly pro-environment, politically moderate in the same way.”
He says this tension is especially difficult for young church members, and he has watched many BYU students silence themselves or drift away from the religion.
Another prominent Mormon environmentalist is Paul Cox, an ethnobotanist who is world-renowned for his research on plants with healing powers. Cox, who lives in Kauai but maintains a residence in Provo, won a Goldman Environmental Prize in 1997 for saving a Samoan rainforest. “If you believe the earth is evidence of a divine creator, then destroying this remarkable creation is equivalent to walking into a museum and slashing a painting of Michelangelo or da Vinci,” he says.
He adds that in what Mormons refer to as “the last days,” people will be held accountable for their actions toward the environment. “When Jesus comes again and he asks, ‘Where are the desert tortoises that I left on the northern edge of the Mojave Desert?’ we may not be so quick to say, ‘Well, we needed an extra 18 holes of golf.’ ”
But neither Cox nor Young feel like their environmental ethics are an appropriate topic for discussion in the ward house, where Mormon congregations meet on Sundays. “I certainly realize that ... there is a diversity of opinion among my fellow Latter-day Saints,” says Cox, “and I certainly don’t ever want to go preach anything that would offend them somehow.”
Young says his love for wilderness is connected to his reverence for the Creator, but adds, “If you’re not part of (the conservative) majority, you have to censor yourself, or else you fragment and destroy the sense of community that is one of the most fundamental values within congregation life.”
Censorship has convinced some green Mormons to leave the ward house behind. Moab resident Ken Sleight, probably best known as Ed Abbey’s prototype for Seldom Seen Smith in The Monkey Wrench Gang, says he became an environmental activist when Glen Canyon was dammed, and consequently, his church attendance fell by the wayside. He says Mormons place a premium on obedience to authority, and their leaders are often ultra-conservative. “They say they give you free agency to speak out, and then they muzzle you,” he says.
But some Mormons are working to change this culture of silence. George Handley is a professor at the church-owned Brigham Young University. Handley teaches environmental humanities classes and has done research on eco-theology. He is advisor to the student environmental club, and has been involved with the formation of Groundswell, a nonprofit group that is dedicated to environmental education within the Mormon community.
“I think that we need to try to create an atmosphere in Mormon culture where Mormons feel more comfortable with the idea that they have environmental responsibilities,” says Handley. And he wants to clear up misperceptions about the church’s anti-green reputation. “What I feel intent on fighting against is the prevailing false notion that Mormons are somehow taught not to care about the environment by church authorities.”
Mormon artist Maryann Webster has gone one step further, petitioning her church leaders to take a stand. She wants the church to officially oppose the Skull Valley nuclear waste storage project, and she’s written letters to the current church president (and prophet), Gordon B. Hinckley, and spoken with other church authorities.
“I really think that the only entity in the state of Utah that has the political and economic power to stop this nuclear waste dump is the LDS Church,” she says. “You can’t take a stance against alcohol and smoking and then be for storing nuclear waste in your neighborhood.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the Mormon Church has spoken out on a nuclear issue. In 1981, the church officially opposed the MX missile plan, which would have set up a nuclear missile system in the West Desert of Utah and Nevada, intended to intercept Soviet missiles headed for the East Coast. Then-church President Spencer W. Kimball released a statement opposing the construction of such deadly weapons, and also voicing concern for the project’s ecological impacts. After Kimball’s proclamation, and already facing opposition from Utah Gov. Scott Matheson, D, President Reagan abandoned the project.
To date, Webster has had no luck getting the church to take a stand against the Skull Valley dump, but she sees some hope in one recent chain of events. In November, Utahns were outraged by an attempt to ship nuclear waste to a facility 80 miles west of Salt Lake City owned by Envirocare of Utah (HCN, 12/8/03: Utahns beat back radioactive waste). Gov. Olene Walker, a Mormon, condemned a move in Congress to reclassify the waste so it could slip past the state’s regulatory standards. Utah legislators scrambled to restore state control.
But the widespread opposition crystallized with a statement made by the LDS Church. Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, declared formal opposition to Envirocare’s bid. (The Quorum and the First Presidency, which includes President Hinckley and his two counselors, are the highest church authorities.) The company backed down soon afterward.
The week before Ballard and other religious leaders condemned Envirocare’s proposal, Maryann Webster visited the public affairs office at church headquarters to encourage them to come out on the issue. She says her voice was like “a grain of sand in a jar,” and on this issue, enough grains were added that the jar was full.
“Some people may view (Mormon environmentalists) as being very incongruent; I don’t,” says writer and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams, a member of the LDS Church. For evidence, she points to Brigham Young’s well-documented conservation ethic, the church’s teaching that plants and animals have souls, and the genesis of the religion, when Joseph Smith received his first revelation in a grove of trees and uncovered the Book of Mormon buried deep in a hillside.
“There is a deep-seated tradition of environmental consciousness in the Mormon religion,” she says. “I think the Mormon religion has always been a radical religion of idealists.”
Richard Ingebretsen and his fight to drain Lake Powell fall nicely into that pattern, she adds. “I think Richard Ingebretsen is very much in the tradition of Joseph Smith,” she says: “big vision, with big improbabilities, creating a constituency of believers.”
Who placed the dark stain of sin upon this fair creation? Man. Who but man shall remove the foul blot, and restore all things to their primeval purity and innocence?
—Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 10:301
But Mormon doctrine leaves a lot of room for interpretation. There are as many Mormon views on the environment as there are members of the church. The proposal to drain Lake Powell is controversial even among environmentalists, and among Mormons, it reveals the wide range of ways a stewardship ethic can be interpreted.
Fifteen years after Ingebretsen explored the sandstone chambers of Glen Canyon with his Boy Scout troop, another generation of Scouts camped on the shores of Lake Powell. And Sean Noble, who now serves in a Mormon bishopric in Phoenix, Ariz., was one of them. “It was a great outdoor wonderland for us,” says 33-year-old Noble, a member of the Page, Ariz.-based nonprofit Friends of Lake Powell, which formed in 1997 to oppose efforts to drain the reservoir.
As chief of staff for Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., who sits on the House Resources Committee, Noble was involved with the congressional hearings Jim Hansen held in 1997 to discredit proposals to drain the reservoir. Noble was astonished when he heard the Sierra Club endorsed the idea. “My first thought was: I can’t believe a group that’s supposed to love nature would want to destroy something so beautiful.
“I have no doubt that if Jesus Christ were on the earth today, he would love Lake Powell,” Noble adds. “Lake Powell is the Sea of Galilee of the West.” Politically, Noble’s view seems to be holding fast. In November, Congress passed an Interior Department spending bill that, at the urging of Utah’s congressional leaders, contained a rider prohibiting the department from even studying the possiblity of draining the reservoir.
But ecologically, Ingebretsen’s vision is gaining ground.
On the final night of our trip down the Colorado River, we camp at his favorite point in Cataract Canyon, where the Colorado River usually runs into Lake Powell. To him, this site represents the battle between good and evil: “God’s beauty and man’s destruction meet at one point,” he says.
But now, after five years of drought, Lake Powell is disappearing — even with the dam still in place. The reservoir is at half its capacity, and Ingebretsen’s favorite spot has been purged. On the canyon walls we can see the telltale white bathtub ring, marking the lake’s high-water mark, but the river runs quickly by the golden sandstone cliffs.
In the morning, we stop to hike up Dark Canyon, and the entrance is clogged with a 20-foot slug of sediment left by the receding reservoir. We walk in between walls of silt in a muddy channel gouged out by a recent flash flood. At the top of the canyon, the sediment has been washed clear, and a waterfall cascades into a series of pools. We explore the edges of this Glen Canyon offshoot and jump into the pools.
Back on the river, we ride through the last rapids before the canyon opens to Lake Powell and Hite Marina. These rapids have been buried under reservoir water for decades. Ingebretsen marvels at the things the drought has returned. “It’s like watching a resurrection,” he says.
It occurs to me that Ingebretsen and Peterson’s daunting mission — restoring river ecosystems and a sense of responsibility for the earth, in the land of the Saints — might not be so far-fetched after all. “Mormons are environmentalists — they just don’t know it,” says Ingebretsen. “They just need to be shown the way.”
Rosemary Winters writes from Salt Lake City, Utah.
The following sidebar article accompanies this story:
Mormons for Equality and Social Justice www.mesj.org
Glen Canyon Institute www.glencanyon.org, 801-363-4450
Friends of Lake Powell www.lakepowell.org, 928-645-0229
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance www.suwa.org, 801-486-3161
George Handley organizer of “Our Stewardship: LDS Perspectives on Nature,” a BYU symposium scheduled for February, 801-422-7151, George_Handley@byu.edu.