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

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