How to influence Congress on just dollars a day

  • Ray Wheeler, on the road on Boulder Mountain in Utah

    Amy O'Connor

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, Congress weighs the fate of Utah's wild lands.

Ray Wheeler, who has a history of determination that includes hiking nearly all the way across Utah, climbed on a jet in Salt Lake City last July 12, bound for the nation's halls of power.

The occasion was an emergency, he felt: Congress seemed about to ram through a bill that would open much of Utah's wilderness to development.

Wheeler had snatched four hours' sleep during the previous two days; he'd been scrambling to gather materials, writing and rewriting a statement that he was going to read to senators in a hearing he saw as crucial. In Washington, D.C., he was in motion again, assembling a packet that included news reports and firsthand observation from his many hikes, a dozen large color photos and a 12-square-foot poster, all portraying the Utah wilderness that he knew so well - the canyon of the Dirty Devil River, for example, Labyrinth Canyon, Happy Canyon, the San Rafael Swell around Muddy Creek.

Only by working through his third all-nighter was he ready to walk into the hearing room the next day when his name was called, and sit at the witness table. There, he was stunned. Only a half-dozen or so of the subcommittee members had bothered to attend the hearing, and by the time Wheeler got his chance, only one senator, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, remained on the dais. Nudging another Utah activist to hold up his photos at the proper time, Wheeler read his statement in the direction of the mostly empty senators' chairs.

The Oregon senator, in animated conversation with an aide, paid little attention, until it was time for him to bring down the gavel on Wheeler's seven allotted minutes.

Wheeler had picked the redrock country as his home more than 20 years ago, after scouting much of the West as a river guide and backcountry lodge worker. With a degree in English Lit as a springboard, he'd arranged a life around chronicling Utah's wilderness. He had a day job at the University of Utah with one-quarter time off, so he could go on expeditions, and a wife, Amy O'Connor, who shared his politics and his love for the outdoors.

Over the years Wheeler had mapped a route and come within 15 miles of hiking mostly contiguous wilderness from Colorado to Nevada; he'd inventoried wilderness all over Utah acre by acre, helping to spur protection of some U.S. Forest Service areas; he'd helped put together a coffee-table book detailing the wonders of areas that the Bureau of Land Management was temporarily protecting and evaluating.

He'd come to understand how special Utah's wilderness is - hunks as large as 1 million acres almost blending together without interruption from people. He believed that the decision on wilderness managed by the BLM - Utah's biggest landlord, managing 44 percent of the state's area - would leave a permanent imprint. The BLM process of studies, comment periods and recommendations had dragged on all the years he had been in Utah, and he'd gotten cynical about the lack of victory. Then most of Utah's congressional delegation had united behind what seemed like the ultimate disastrous bill.

Wheeler, 43, felt he couldn't live with himself if he didn't go down fighting.

He had planned his D.C. trip to last only a few days, but after the hearing went so badly, he extended his stay. He'd been associated with groups such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and the Utah Wilderness Coalition, but at this point he was freelancing in a niche he'd discovered: The groups had concentrated on lobbying the House of Representatives, so he'd conduct a personal campaign targeting senators.

His first problem was to persuade busy political people from New York and California and other urban power bases that a bunch of rock and sand in Utah mattered.

By trial and error, he perfected his method: call the senator's office and get the name of the staffer who would handle such approaches. Above all, don't leave a message saying that some unknown, waffle-stomping maverick named Ray Wheeler was calling blind about Utah wilderness. Instead, leave no message, but call back later acting like Ray Wheeler the insider, who of course expected his call to be put through. Wheeler would keep pressing until the staffer agreed to a meeting, where he could make eye contact and present his photos and poster.

Wheeler operated out of SUWA's national office, which sits over a Chinese restaurant a few blocks from the Capitol, and out of the Sierra Club office, which is closer to the Senate side. Other than the plane ticket and two nights at a cheap bed and breakfast, which SUWA funded, Wheeler was paying his expenses. He was on foot pretty much everywhere he went, in a city that was sweltering in a record heat wave.

Some nights he slept on the carpet of SUWA's office. One night he slept on a sheet of cardboard on the fire escape outside the office, feeling not too different from the homeless people who scrounged on the streets below.

Always on deadline or running late, Wheeler would show up for his meetings with the key staffers carrying all his props, sweaty and out of breath; he'd try to persuade the stranger from another culture to imagine what his material and photos represented. He'd pull out one photo and say, "I've stood right on that spot - pretty awesome, isn't it? That's where the tar sands development would go."

One meeting, with Martin McBroom, a staffer for heavyweight Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, looked to be especially difficult. McBroom interrupted Wheeler's spiel, taking charge, firing skeptical questions and pawing through the supporting evidence. "Aren't you really overstating your case?" McBroom wanted to know. Then he noticed the portfolio, and took possession of it, much as he had taken possession of the meeting. As McBroom looked through the photos, he warmed. It turned out that McBroom was also a photographer who had tried to capture landscapes; he began to admit some enthusiasm for Utah's sand and rock. He also offered advice.

"Senate staffers are snobs. You look sloppy. We don't appreciate that," McBroom said. He reached out and straightened Wheeler's tie. Wheeler was grateful; his effort shouldn't be wasted by something so trivial as a gentlemen's dress code.

In two intense weeks, Wheeler managed to meet with staffers for 34 senators. Then he dragged himself onto a jet and flew home.

The emergency continued longer than anyone predicted. Environmental groups mobilized members in every congressional district. A public relations firm hired by environmentalists helped trigger editorials in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and in hometown papers in many congressional districts. Just as Utah's political machine seemed to suffer inertia, Congress did too, despite the rhetoric about a quick revolution. Official action on Utah wilderness bogged down. Wheeler hopes he may have had some small effect.

Ray Ring writes in Bozeman, Montana.

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