Toppling monoliths in Mormon Country

  • Greg Hanscom


It’s all too easy to stereotype Mormons as conservative, anti-environment and unquestioning of their leaders.

Kudos to those within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who are breaking out of that stereotype — those who are proving that there is room within the faith for diversity and debate. As Rosemary Winters writes in this issue’s cover story, a few bold Saints are arguing loudly for taking better care of their homeland in the West. They’re spearheading efforts to restore rivers, protect wilderness and prevent nuclear waste dumps.

Their message is incredibly important. Worldwide, Mormons now outnumber Jews. In the U.S., there are more Mormons than Presbyterians or Episcopalians. In Utah, there are more than 1.6 million Mormons. California has 756,000, Washington has 233,000, Idaho has 353,000 and Arizona has 322,000. And the church is growing — growing faster, in fact, than any other faith in the Western Hemisphere.

Therein, of course, lies part of the rub. No discussion of Mormons and their views on the environment would be complete without addressing population. The population of Utah, which is 73 percent Mormon, is growing more than twice as quickly as the nation as a whole, and immigration accounts for only 12 percent of that growth. Where are the rest of these new citizens coming from? The Web site for the planning effort, Envision Utah, puts it tactfully: “By 2020, the Greater Wasatch Area (stretching north and south from Salt Lake City) will add a million more residents, two-thirds of whom will be our children and grandchildren.”

Of course, not all Mormons have a gaggle of kids, and Utah’s fertility rate has dropped significantly since the 1960s, from an average of more than four children per woman of reproductive age, to just over two and a half. Still, Utah has the largest families in the nation, and these families have very real impacts on the landscape.

Look at the Greater Wasatch Area: Suburban sprawl has become rampant, and with it traffic jams and pea-soup smog. Water has become scarce enough that the state is talking about damming the Bear River, and potentially drying up a world-class migratory bird refuge. The Wasatch Mountains, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly crowded, as skiers, snowmobilers, hikers and mountain bikers vie for limited space on the public trails.

And yet, most Mormons — even the outspoken environmentalists among them — shy away from the issue of population growth and large families. The church does not require members to have large families, nor does it have a policy against using birth control. But the cultural expectations are strong, and family is the foundation upon which everything else in Mormon society is built.

As you’ll read in this issue, some Mormons are taking on one of Utah’s greatest icons — Glen Canyon Dam — arguing that it should be breached, so that Glen Canyon can emerge from the depths of Lake Powell. Surely, if there’s room for questions about Glen Canyon Dam, there ought to be room for some talk about that other environmental monolith that looms large in Utah and elsewhere in the West: population growth.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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