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
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!