Floating past cottonwood trees and tamarisk just before dusk, Skip Edwards deftly keeps his raft within earshot of ours so he can pummel us with facts about the 1964 Wilderness Act. But around the next bend, the former Bureau of Land Management river ranger falls silent and points to a massive red and orange sandstone wall marking the entrance to Utah's Westwater Canyon. Though he's logged more than 200 trips down this section of the Colorado River, he is still awed. He shakes his head in total disbelief. "This is not worthy?"
wilderness, he means.
For 15 years, Utahns have
fought bitterly over which BLM lands in their state should be
designated wilderness. A stew of wildly differing proposals
reflects just how much the issue has fractured the state.
The political lead is held by Utah's Republican
congressional delegation. Its House bill, H.R. 1745, and identical
Senate bill, S.B. 884, would designate 1.8 million acres as
The lone Democrat in the delegation,
Bill Orton, wants only 1.1 million acres. But his proposal also
includes 3.1 million acres of National Conservation Areas - a
status that provides less protection than wilderness.
During the Bush administration, the BLM
suggested 1.9 million acres, though the agency currently manages
3.2 million acres of de facto wilderness.
Finally, a coalition of Utah and national
environmental groups known as the Utah Wilderness Coalition is
holding out for 5.7 million acres as proposed in H.R. 1500 - a bill
originally drafted by former Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, and now
sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.
three proposals read so differently it's hard to believe they're
based on the same act.
But in one rare fit of
consensus, all parties agreed that Westwater Canyon in Grand County
should be wilderness, even nodding to roughly the same
"They all pointed to Westwater and
said, "This is what we mean by wilderness," " says Bill Hedden,
Grand County Council member.
Then, suddenly, in
the last step of the process, the first mile and a half of the
canyon, just over the Utah-Colorado border, slipped through a
It was a crack created by Ron Pene last
March in Moab. Pene, twin brother of Grand County council member
Ray Pene, presented a report to the council on his family's mining
claims within BLM's 31,000-acre Westwater Wilderness Study Area. He
argued that because of the claims, old mining scars, historical
mining shacks, an agency fence and "three and a half miles of
county roads," the area was "trammeled." Too trammeled to be called
wilderness, defined in one section of the 1964 act as "a roadless
area of 5,000 acres or more, pristine and undisturbed."
Based on Ron Pene's testimony, council members -
including his brother - voted 4-3 to delete 1,800 acres in
Westwater from H.R. 1745. The Utah Republicans in Congress acceded
to the county's wishes.
need for wilderness
What nobody realized then,
says Hedden, was that Ron Pene, 49, had illegally driven a
bulldozer into his family's claims at Westwater. While Pene admits
to bulldozing the road, he insists he didn't break the law. His
appeal with the Interior Department is still pending (see
A lot of people in southern
Utah sympathize with Pene, who has worked as a miner, a
heavy-equipment operator and a chemist for a mining company. Mining
is what his family has done for three generations and mining is
what he still plans to do. The fact that he has valid claims inside
a wilderness study area is the BLM's problem, not his, says Pene.
By mining with a new, "high-tech,
environmentally safe" recovery method that he has patented, Pene
believes he can generate revenue for Utah and the county while
reclaiming old mining scars.
Ray and Ron Pene
grew up in Thompson, Utah, now a ghost town except for the train
station that serves the growing resort town of Moab, a few homes, a
cafe and a gas station by the interstate. Their grandfather, a
miner and an immigrant from Italy, settled in the old coal mining
town of Sego, just up the road from Thompson. Ray recalls a
childhood spent scrambling through the Book Cliffs looking for
pictographs, panning for gold and chucking rocks at hobos hitching
in open rail cars.
Ray Pene isn't a fan of
"I am completely opposed
to the taking of lands from multiple use," wrote Councilman Pene in
a letter last spring to the delegation. "I have heard the argument
that if we don't designate the lands wilderness, we will lose them
forever. I say if we do designate the lands as wilderness, we do
lose them forever."
Environmentalists say Pene
is exactly the kind of council member Utah's congressional
delegation hoped they would find when they asked leaders in rural
counties to recommend wilderness. The delegation says they wanted
approval from those who would be most affected.
Environmentalists charge that the consultation
with rural counties was a ploy to make the 1.8 million-acre bill
look generous, knowing that most rural counties would recommend
It happened in most of
rural Utah (HCN, 3/20/95). But in Grand County, even though at
least three council members are anti-wilderness, as a group they
called for more wilderness than the delegation. Hedden says the
Pene claims in Westwater were deleted as part of the give-and-take
needed to keep Grand County's proposal intact. This was one of the
dumber things the council did, Hedden says
"It's not a gigantic piece of wilderness,
but it makes you sick to see the most blatant conflict of interest
blessed and rewarded. It's in the delegation's bill," he says. "It
changes national law in Pene's individual favor."
The Westwater deletion seems like the
kind of thing that should have galvanized environmentalists and the
20,000 boaters that paddle through Westwater each year. The canyon
is home to native endangered fish, bald eagles, golden eagles, blue
herons, peregrine falcons, a rare species of butterfly and scores
of archaeological sites. It is also a whitewater run of near-cult
status, drawing so many boaters from Salt Lake City and Denver that
a permit system was instated in 1973.
are getting so crowded," says Skip Edwards. "But here, the permit
system allows for a rare experience: a 17-mile, primitive,
recreational river trip that can be done easily in one or two
But while the Pene deletion is a terrible
mistake, say environmentalists, they have bigger battles - whole
chunks left off the bill, hard-release language that would prohibit
future wilderness designations in Utah, and disclaimers that allow
dams, motorized vehicles, overflights and pipelines inside
That's where Skip Edwards, our
guide through the canyon, steps in. Westwater is one of his
favorite wild places, and he's not about to see even a piece of the
canyon let go.
He and his partner, Doreen
Dethmers, worked for the BLM and lived at the ranger station, a
mile or so upstream from the canyon's entrance, from 1988 to 1993.
They know every side canyon, every submerged feature of the river
bottom, every eddy. Though they could rarely find time away from
the boaters to have a quiet evening alone, Edwards says one of the
joys of working at Westwater was watching people fall in love with
He resigned from the BLM a few
months ago in disgust, in part because of the BLM's refusal to
protect Westwater from Pene.
"He's given up
everything to work on this, which is amazing to me," says Hedden.
"This is the first time I've dug in my heels,"
says Edwards, 50.
Edwards has turned detective
as well as activist, obsessed with every detail of the Penes'
mining claim. What he found was that the conflict was partly the
BLM's fault. In 1975, an amendment to the Wild and Scenic River Act
protected a quarter-mile on each side of the canyon from new mining
Unfortunately, the agency forgot to file
for an extension in 1982, creating a three-year loophole through
which Pene drove his first six claims. Pene's other claims were
filed in 1991, after protection had been reinstated. BLM geologist
Sal Venticinque thinks the agency could kill at least some of the
claims simply because of their filing date.
agency could also get rid of the rest of the Pene claims if it can
prove mining can't make a reasonable profit, says Kate Kitchell,
the BLM's Moab district manager. So far, the agency hasn't tried.
Although a 1989 study by the Bureau of Mines estimated the claims
wouldn't produce much gold, Pene believes he may have found the
But Edwards and Hedden wonder if
Ron Pene is working the claims mainly to gain ownership of the land
through the 1872 Mining Law. His claims are at the edge of a
spectacular canyon slated for wilderness.
says if he had the money, he would patent the claims - but only to
protect his mining rights. "I don't want to build a resort," he
says. "This is strictly for mining and that's the way it is."
Kitchell believes him: "Like a lot of people, I
think he'd like to be a rich miner."
BLM is now trying to actively manage Pene's claims, its attempts to
enforce the law have been ignored. Alex VanHemert, a recreation
planner for the BLM, says Pene continues to work his claims without
BLM permission. He no longer uses the bulldozer, but he still
maintains the road with a metal drag that he attaches to his truck.
He parks the drag near one of his test pits.
Pene says the BLM is harassing him and that it
has changed the rules. "The bottom line is, I'm not getting a fair
But Edwards says agency officials
haven't been aggressive enough. He thinks they're scared Pene might
do serious damage to the land. Given agency inconsistencies and lax
enforcement, Edwards also raises the question of collusion with
former BLM staff. "It's too hard to trace," says Hedden. "But it
wouldn't take your breath away."
A hotbed of
The history of Moab and Grand County
give some force to Edwards' distrust.
County was a hotbed of the Sagebrush Rebellion after the 1976
Federal Land Policy Management Act directed the BLM to inventory
its lands for wilderness potential.
Commissioners tried to drive a bulldozer into a
wilderness study area on July 4, 1980, missing the boundary by a
quarter-mile and then correcting the mistake several days later
(HCN, 7/11/80). A BLM district manager who attempted to protect the
land was transferred; a more accommodating official was brought in.
Moab is also where the husband of a BLM employee
working on the wilderness inventory took a BLM district manager
hostage at gunpoint. Finally, he decided he couldn't blame his woes
on the federal government, so he released his hostage, went around
back of the agency's district office, and blew his brains out.
"Mining is what put Moab on the map, and
everyone hoped mining would pull the county of its slump in the
1980s," explains BLM geologist Terry McParland. "Instead,
recreation turned out to be the answer. That's been both good and
bad. It's hard to convince locals they have to change their ways."
She says old-time county residents and
recreationists are still learning how to respect each other. "For
some people," she adds, "that learning curve may not be very fast."
Despite the canyon of disagreement between them,
Skip Edwards and the Pene brothers have more in common than they
might think: The three are intimate with and passionate about the
land in a way that those making the decisions in Washington, D.C.,
are not. They just see it differently.
Edwards talks about Westwater, his reference points are nesting
grounds, rapids, a certain arch, a beach swallowed by high water.
When council member Ray Pene talks about his native Utah, his
landmarks are those created by extraction and industry: mines,
diverted rivers, power plants, the new Micron factory near Lehi.
A decision on the Utah delegation's bill, H.R
1745, is imminent, says Ken Rait of the Southern Utah Wilderness
Alliance. He says it will probably pass the House easily, but may
be defeated by the Senate, or possibly vetoed by the president.
Edwards is optimistic, but he hasn't stopped
fighting for the canyon. He recently bought a second-hand suit at a
thrift store and traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Utah
lawmakers. He wore dress shoes, not river sandals, and grew big
blisters on his ankles. He told lawmakers they must put the Pene
deletion back into H.R. 1745.
"I want to believe
some people heard what I was saying," reports Edwards.
Aaron Edens, aide to Rep. Enid Waldholtz,
R-Utah, says the congresswoman is looking into the possibility of
adding the deleted portion of Westwater to the 300,000-acre
amendment she plans to introduce when the bill hits the House
Meanwhile, Pene vows to hold onto the
claims he considers his:
"They're still not
going to be wilderness, even if those bills don't go through. Am I
going to let the property go? No!"
Elizabeth Manning is HCN's
For more information about H.R.
1745, contact Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, at the U.S. House of
Representatives, or Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, at the U.S. Senate,
Washington, DC 20510 (202/225-3121).