This neglect is not the high country's fault. We should of course care about areas like Mount Timpanogos -- kingly realms that touch the hem of heaven. It's no accident that our foundational national parks -- Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, Rainier, Crater Lake, Glacier, Rocky Mountain -- celebrated the highlands.
But that kind of love is easy. It's harder to love the unelevated, the unlovely, the downtrodden, the depauperate.
Utah Lake does not offer a "peak experience." It is shallow, turbid, unspectacular and polluted. Yet even in its current state -- with PCB-laden carp making up 90 percent of the biomass -- the lake remains a critically important wildlife habitat. It and the lower Provo River are far more ecologically important than the Mount Timpanogos Wilderness Area. Utah's watery namesake and its remaining native fish -- especially the federally listed June sucker -- deserve attention and repair.
The time is right. Geneva Steel closed in 2001; dismantling began in 2005. A developer has purchased the site. The greater lakefront represents the final real estate bonanza in Provo-Orem, one of the nation's fastest-growing metro areas. With more people living near the water, Utah Lake seems poised for renewal. A harbinger came in 2007, when Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman approved a cooperative agreement of nine lakeside cities. The resulting Utah Lake Commission is dedicated to improving the resource for people and wildlife. Building on this success, Huntsman signed an executive order in 2008 to create a Great Salt Lake Advisory Council.
The benefits of stewardship are more than environmental. There is a positive correlation between ecological consciousness and historical consciousness. By rehabilitating Utah's namesake lake, Utahns will recover an important part of their history, a history of Utes, and Mormons, and fish. Here and elsewhere, we will be better stewards of the past as well as better stewards of the Earth if we work from the bottom up.
Can Westerners turn their gaze from the lofty to the lowly? There are encouraging precedents from the Golden State. In 1994, after grassroots organizing, publicity work and litigation, the Mono Lake Committee secured legal agreements with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to restore Mono Lake. More recently, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presided over the ceremonial re-watering of the lower Owens River. The lake itself will not return -- the city still siphons the water before it reaches the sink -- but a rich riparian habitat is being restored. In Orange County, the California Department of Fish and Game recently opened Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a salt marsh that used to be an oil field. In San Francisco Bay, an ambitious multi-agency effort is under way to reclaim tidal marshes from salt ponds.
Other lowland restoration projects remain unresolved or underfunded. The Salton Sea, the Colorado River Delta, and the Sacramento River Delta rank among the most intractable problem spots in the West. So many stakeholders, so little water.
Like sediment, the effects of our choices accumulate downstream. They become concentrated. The lowdown places of the world -- places like the Everglades and the Aral Sea, the Gulf Coast and the Tigris-Euphrates -- are rich in cultural life and biodiversity, and they are full of injuries and possibilities. For restorationists, the stakes are highest here. The next New West will require the reinvention of reclamation -- the practical art of place-repair. In a region blessed with so much magnificent high country, it's easy to look down on other places, and yet these overlooked landscapes may point the way.