The corrupting influence of power

It’s more important than ever to pursue accountability.

 

In the 1840s, followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fled persecution in Illinois and made their way west to the Great Salt Lake, intent on building a communal utopia in the desert. The church financed the building of its Zion, and, in what many believers saw as a sign of divine favor, their work prospered. As a result, the church has retained power over a large swath of the Mormon West, ranging from modern-day Utah through its neighboring states.

The Salt Lake Temple as seen in a reflecting pool in Temple Square, headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Kim Raff for High Country News

This issue’s cover story explores the consequences that can follow when religious power and state politics become too closely entwined. Emma Penrod, a writer based in rural Utah, describes faulty water systems that have exposed thousands to tainted drinking water, problems exacerbated by the influence of the LDS Church over state regulators. Penrod, a former investigative journalist for The Salt Lake Tribune, reported this story for the better part of a year. She found that not only did the church’s leadership know about the contaminated water, but so did Utah’s chief water regulators — who gave the church a pass on repeated infractions for years.

She also learned that a popular LDS summer camp she visited in her youth as a member of the church, was among those whose water was most likely contaminated. This inside perspective allows for a critical look at the potential human costs of power structures that allow pollution and other environmental harm. It also gives us a better understanding of how the legacy of power works in Utah, through both members and non-members of the church.

Paige Blankenbuehler, associate editor
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Throughout the issue, we explore issues of legacy and accountability. Assistant Editor Anna Smith describes the efforts of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians to manage land in Oregon recently returned to them but then burned in a human-caused forest fire. Writer Wudan Yan describes the air-lift removal of non-native mountain goats from Washington’s Olympic National Park, revealing the lengths to which national and state agencies must go to restore complex ecosystems. And, in a moving essay, Contributing Editor Ruxandra Guidi describes her correspondence with an immigrant detainee named Miguel, who writes to her from the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California. 

All these stories portray a complicated West, in which power and legacy have unexpected impacts on human and non-human systems. And, in the end, they ask us to consider accountability. Who should keep us safe from tainted water? Who should manage what land, and how? And how far should our compassion go? The West has always forced us to ask such questions, and these days, the need for answers is more pressing than ever.

Paige Blankenbuehler is an associate editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.