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Know the West

Why Rep. Rob Bishop’s promises of wilderness ring false

Famed forester Bob Marshall foreshadowed the loss of untouched lands in Utah.


More than 80 years ago, a young forester named Robert Marshall was surveying range allotments up on the remote Tavaputs Plateau in east-central Utah.

Taking a break from his work, he walked west until he came to the edge of a cliff overlooking the Green River as it flowed through Desolation Canyon. Describing the scene a few years later, Marshall wrote of how this “strong, gray river” tore its way through the roadless, unpopulated canyon.  He lingered there on his airy perch, letting the sun and the space flow into him. The wind was in the junipers, and he was completely alone. 

This spellbinding scene would not last, he feared. Marshall predicted that someday, he would read about “a road being projected down the gorge of the Green River. … The article will state how many miles the distance between Vernal and Moab will be shortened, how many men will get to work, how many tourists will leave their money along the route.”

Boaters in Desolation Canyon, in a film from the Bureau of Land Management. The canyon is part of Rep. Rob Bishop's controversial Public Lands Initiative.

Bob Marshall knew how things tended to go in Utah. Most of our political leaders never saw a road they didn’t like, or an oil well or strip mine that shouldn’t be built. Today we have many more roads, an overabundance of oil, and much less wilderness. But even this is not enough; we’re still pursuing the Big Find that’s always just over the next ridge.

Today it’s natural gas, but next may come tar sands — the boom that would destroy the solitude-rich landscape that was Bob Marshall’s Tavaputs Plateau.

I was gratified, at first, to see that Utah Rep. Rob Bishop included a nearly half-million-acre Desolation Canyon wilderness in draft legislation under his Public Lands Initiative, sometimes called the “Grand Bargain.” But then I read further. Instead of an exceptional wilderness, the Utah Republican is giving us a wilderness with exceptions. Exceptions like allowing game managers to shoot coyotes and wolves from helicopters, like allowing grazing permittees to use all-terrain vehicles to maintain fences and stock tanks, and like allowing the Forest Service to bring in bulldozers to fight wildfires.

Many other superb wildlands are absent from his proposed bill, places like Moonshine Wash, which cuts a narrow gorge through the San Rafael Desert, much of the western bank of Labyrinth Canyon, and Fable Valley in the remote Dark Canyon Plateau.  The bill provides for a major highway through the Book Cliffs, much as Bob Marshall predicted.

But the greatest damage would be caused by Bishop’s virtual redefinition of wilderness. The provisions included in his bill for the convenience of administrative agencies and grazing permittees would take a long step backward from the agreements Congress reached in 1964, when it passed the Wilderness Act.

Last year, I was privileged to spend some time with Stewart Brandborg, who was Howard Zahniser’s assistant at The Wilderness Society during the eight-year campaign to enact a good wilderness law. Brandborg is one of the last of that generation of conservationists who worked so hard to pass the Wilderness Act. He had met Bob Marshall in 1937 when that avid (and badly sunburned) explorer came to dinner at his parents’ home. He had just completed a 40-mile-long hike through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

Brandborg described the years of work under Zahniser’s leadership that led to passage of the Wilderness Act. He spoke of the courageous members of Congress who fought for this legislation, including John Saylor, Clinton Anderson, Lee Metcalf, Frank Church, Maurine Neuberger. These men and women came from both sides of the aisle and understood the importance of this landmark law. He expressed dismay at recent attempts to subvert their historic compromise with so-called “wilderness” proposals that grant all kinds of special dispensations for non-conforming uses.

Here in Utah, as throughout the West, we need wilderness laws without loopholes, and wilderness areas without exceptions. We must resolve to be patient and continue to work for legislation that is worthy of the land we are entrusted to protect. This means rejecting Grand Bargains that promise an accessible wilderness, an easy solitude. Convenience always comes at a price.

We like to imagine that we exalt ourselves by bringing the wilderness down to our size. But when we do so, we only diminish our own stature. To start down that road is to turn our back on the vision of big, untrammeled country that thrilled Bob Marshall 80 years ago. And in what is perhaps the greatest loss, we leave behind something of the best in us. 

Fred Swanson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion syndicate of High Country News. His most recent book is Where Roads Will Never Reach: Wilderness and Its Visionaries in the Northern Rockies.