'Clinging hopelessly to the past'

The cantankerous gospel of Jim Stiles and The Canyon Country Zephyr

  • A small-town newspaperman tackles big recreation, and runs into a few environmentalists in the process

    Mark Fox
  • Jim Stiles, editor and publisher of The Canyon Country Zephyr on the Slockrock Trail near Moab

    Mark Fox
  • Safari Me

    Jim Stiles
  • Ed Abbey and Moab

    Jim Stiles
  • Jim Stiles, in what he calls his 'Sonny Bono' look, as a ranger in 1976

    Courtesy Jim Stiles
  • Jim Stiles finds signs of the continuing development of Canyon Country around Moab

    Mark Fox
  • Four-wheelers backed up at the entrance to the Slickrock Trail

    Mark Fox
  • Moab today has an increasingly spiffed-up loo, with a gentrified downtown and upscale new development reaching into the surrounding canyon country

    Mark Fox
  • Moab

    Mark Fox

Page 5

Stiles growls out a small part of his list of SUWA’s transgressions: SUWA regularly berates the off-road vehicle crowd, but rarely dares to point a finger at mountain bikers, he says, despite the fact that the International Mountain Biking Association opposes designating new wilderness unless the boundaries are adjusted to accommodate bikers. According to Stiles, SUWA is so beholden to the mountain biking crowd that it adjusted the boundaries of a proposed wilderness area to accommodate the 24 Hours of Moab bike race — a race that draws thousands of riders, and their SUVs.

The group has dropped its policy against crowd-drawing guidebooks, according to Stiles, and now sponsors a guidebook author who travels the country promoting canyoneering, and arguing that in order to save wilderness, more people must visit it. Stiles also winces at the group’s offering of cushy tours to benefactors, when he thinks SUWA ought to be the first people to insist on low-impact, roughing-it travel.

The environmental movement, according to Stiles, is simply unable or unwilling to face the New West’s new realities. You could say that he’s accusing SUWA and other groups of doing just what he’s been doing: clinging hopelessly to the past.

"The environmental movement has not advocated for this new economy," responds Scott Groene, SUWA’s executive director. "We have raised concerns about guidebooks. We have raised concerns about agencies creating user areas that will only draw more use. But the new economy is being driven by forces that are far greater than we are."

This all reached an argumentative crescendo earlier this year when Stiles submitted a column to the High Country News opinion syndicate, Writers on the Range, chastising SUWA for, of all things, having such a large war chest. According to tax documents Stiles hunted down, in 2004 SUWA had almost $5 million in "net assets and fund balances." He argued that, rather than letting its money sit in the bank, SUWA ought to disperse some of it to other, less-funded environmental groups that are tackling New West issues.

In a response published in the Salt Lake Tribune, Groene called Stiles the desert country’s "own Barney Fife. He’s worth having around, even if we have to clean up after him now and again." Groene said SUWA’s "rainy day fund" was similar to those of comparable environmental groups, and said, "True enough, for almost the first time in its 23-year history, SUWA can pay its bills."

From the sidelines, it would be easy to dismiss all this as a family squabble, one that, for all we know, has roots in a softball game argument 20 years ago. SUWA has done its best to dismiss Stiles’ writings as the product of an angry, even unstable man. "It’s like he’s angry about something deeper and taking it out on us," says McIntosh, SUWA’s conservation director.

But that explanation cheapens Stiles’ real point, which Groene ignored in the Tribune. That point is that SUWA does little to fight the threats that the New West economy poses to the Canyon Country. Instead, it pours its substantial resources into the decades-old fight to protect huge gobs of wilderness — a fight that, in Stiles’ estimation, has gotten nowhere.

"Jim doesn’t seem to get it that our mission statement, the reason people donated all that money to us in the first place, is that we are fighting to get 9 million acres of new wilderness established in Utah," responds McIntosh. "He fails to mention that we helped get 100,000 new acres of wilderness established in the West Desert. He doesn’t mention that we helped get the BLM to up its Wilderness Study Area inventory from 3.2 million acres to 5.5 million acres."

As for SUWA’s assets, McIntosh says, "We have to have money in the bank because we’re fighting the oil and gas industry, and guess how much money they have?

"I can’t even read The Zephyr anymore," she says. "It’s not relevant."

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