When I made southeast Utah my home, almost 30 years ago, I came for one reason — the rocks — the most stunning display of intricately carved, brilliantly hued red rocks imaginable. It’s the kind of place one can believe only exists in dreams. I’ve lived here ever since.
Naturally, I went searching for kindred spirits, hoping together we could save some of it. Among those quixotic spirits was the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. In the early 1980s, SUWA was a small grassroots organization dedicated to preserving wilderness; its passion was palpable.
In the late-‘80s, SUWA’s Executive Director Brant Calkin made Utah wilderness a national issue and became a hero to many environmentalists. Scott Groene, SUWA’s current Executive Director wrote, "Brant Calkin is the best damn environmentalist that ever worked on the Colorado Plateau..."
"Brant offered his staff low pay," Groene recalled, "but lots of autonomy to ‘do good and fight evil.’" Brant also believed the key to success was to "build the membership," and by the mid-‘90s its membership had grown nationwide to 20,000.
But if it’s true that good deeds go unrewarded, SUWA is a notable exception. In the late-‘90s SUWA found itself flush with money. Substantial grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Wyss Foundation put the once-struggling wilderness group in a different financial realm. The Wyss donation was particularly fortuitous. Its founder, Swiss-born Hansjorg Wyss, became a member of SUWA’s Board of Directors in 1996 and is its current chairman. With an estimated $8 billion fortune, he was named by Forbes Global as the 18th wealthiest European in 2005.
Wyss’s contributions to SUWA include $1.4 million for a building and renovations in downtown Salt Lake City; the fashionable three-story home is now SUWA’s headquarters. Contributions from Wyss and others have swelled SUWA’s bank account. In 2004, SUWA had almost $5 million in "net assets and fund balances," including $2.5 million in "savings and temporary cash investments," nearly $300,000 in "non-interest bearing cash," and about $1 million in "stocks and mutual funds."
With all those assets, a gala party is planned in May as a tribute to Wyss. The event, to be held in New York City, will cost about $100,000. But according to Groene, "it’s a fund-raising event...(it) will raise us money."
How much money is enough? No one can fault SUWA for its good fortune, but Utah’s most prominent environmental organization is starting to look more like a bank. And while its coffers have grown, membership, according to a SUWA source, has fallen to less than 14,000.
Meanwhile, threats to Utah’s wildlands are becoming more complicated and diverse. The explosion of growth in "New West" towns like Moab and St. George is creating environmental impacts unheard of 20 years ago.
Urban sprawl isn’t confined to Salt Lake City anymore. Wildlife habitat in rural Utah is being threatened by development. Recreation and the commercial exploitation of Utah wildlands are affecting a key component of wilderness — solitude. A proposed dam on the Bear River and a pipeline from Lake Powell to St. George will surely create environmental nightmares.
And yet, while SUWA remains Utah’s most vigilant watchdog of off-road vehicle abuse, oil and gas exploration and public lands grazing, it steadfastly refuses to involve itself in any of these "New West" issues.
"Our top priority," says Groene, "is protecting our wilderness proposal. Until we have protected the lands that qualify as wilderness, the issues outside our boundaries will be lower priorities."
He calls the SUWA surplus its "war chest, for use in emergencies or when extraordinary opportunities arise, and with board approval." SUWA’s rainy day fund. Meanwhile, it’s raining buckets.
If SUWA isn’t willing to deal with these other pressing issues, here’s a proposal: Could SUWA part with some of its surplus and give it to organizations that will? I can think of several worthy Utah environmental groups that could effectively use the money, including the High Uintahs Preservation Council, the Utah Rivers Council, the Nine Mile Coalition, the Utah Environmental Congress, Save Our Canyons, Friends of the Great Salt Lake, and my sentimental favorite, the Glen Canyon Institute. All of these organizations (and others) are doing good and noble work, and when someone with SUWA’s assets can lend a hand, why not?
Ultimately aren’t we all on the same side? Don’t all these groups share a common goal -- to improve the quality of Utah’s natural resources and to preserve and protect the beauty of a landscape that is dear to us all? What could be wiser and ultimately more satisfying than sharing its largesse where it can accomplish the most?