The West’s messy intersections


A few weeks ago, I heard author Terry Tempest Williams deliver the keynote address at the annual SHIFT conference in Jackson, Wyoming. The conference, which High Country News sponsors, deals with the interesting, and at times messy, intersection of the West’s conservation and recreation communities.

It’s messy because the people who recreate on our public lands don’t always agree on how they should be managed. Most SHIFT attendees agreed, for instance, that the half-billion acre federal estate should not be transferred to states and corporations. But allowing mountain bikes in wilderness? That’s something worth scrapping over, as a packed crowd demonstrated at a raucous happy hour session.

Hundreds also crowded into the town’s Center for the Arts to hear Williams, whose intimate and acclaimed memoir, Refuge, was published a quarter century ago. Since then, she has stood like a literary traffic monitor at the many uncomfortable intersections where the wild meets the human. And periodically she jumps into the flow herself: In February, she and her husband, Brooke, successfully bid on federal oil and gas leases near Arches National Park, only to have the Bureau of Land Management rescind them when the couple openly declared that they would not develop them.

In Jackson, Williams was both activist and author. Just minutes into her talk, she invited the 35 young conservationists in the conference’s Emerging Leaders program to come up on stage and asked several to tell their own stories. The audience, perhaps expecting a more traditional wilderness sermon, squirmed a bit. But the storytellers validated Williams’ conviction that the conservation community must listen to the next generation, since the planet’s future lies in their hands. It was a memorable evening with an edge.

Readers will notice a similar edge in this special “Books and Authors” issue, which includes Williams’ reflections about how her own feelings about the Great Salt Lake have evolved since she wrote Refuge. Though she laments the human-caused changes that have left the lake at its lowest recorded levels, she also embraces the ecosystem as beautiful, fluid and beyond control. And now, she says, it’s in the hands of a new generation. Righteous indignation has mellowed into something more uncertain and humble.

Executive Director and Publisher Paul Larmer

Aaron Abeyta’s essay, “Wilderness in Four Parts,” also explores a changing narrative, this one about his family‘s deep roots in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. As he gathers “fragments and words and stories” about his mysterious “black sheep” great-grandfather, he asks: “Can you spend an entire life forgetting the man that is your blessing and curse?”

By remembering his family, Abeyta is ultimately seeking his own place in the world, just as Williams does when she re-enters the baptismal waters of the Great Salt Lake. We invite you to wade into this special issue, to find your own place, and to explore the messy, fluid and mysterious West.

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