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
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...