SUWA, can you spare a dime?

 

When I made southeast Utah my home, almost 30 years ago, I came for one reason — the rocks — the most stunning display of intricately carved, brilliantly hued red rocks imaginable. It’s the kind of place one can believe only exists in dreams. I’ve lived here ever since.

Naturally, I went searching for kindred spirits, hoping together we could save some of it. Among those quixotic spirits was the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. In the early 1980s, SUWA was a small grassroots organization dedicated to preserving wilderness; its passion was palpable.

In the late-‘80s, SUWA’s Executive Director Brant Calkin made Utah wilderness a national issue and became a hero to many environmentalists. Scott Groene, SUWA’s current Executive Director wrote, "Brant Calkin is the best damn environmentalist that ever worked on the Colorado Plateau..."

"Brant offered his staff low pay," Groene recalled, "but lots of autonomy to ‘do good and fight evil.’" Brant also believed the key to success was to "build the membership," and by the mid-‘90s its membership had grown nationwide to 20,000.

But if it’s true that good deeds go unrewarded, SUWA is a notable exception. In the late-‘90s SUWA found itself flush with money. Substantial grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Wyss Foundation put the once-struggling wilderness group in a different financial realm. The Wyss donation was particularly fortuitous. Its founder, Swiss-born Hansjorg Wyss, became a member of SUWA’s Board of Directors in 1996 and is its current chairman. With an estimated $8 billion fortune, he was named by Forbes Global as the 18th wealthiest European in 2005.

Wyss’s contributions to SUWA include $1.4 million for a building and renovations in downtown Salt Lake City; the fashionable three-story home is now SUWA’s headquarters. Contributions from Wyss and others have swelled SUWA’s bank account. In 2004, SUWA had almost $5 million in "net assets and fund balances," including $2.5 million in "savings and temporary cash investments," nearly $300,000 in "non-interest bearing cash," and about $1 million in "stocks and mutual funds."

With all those assets, a gala party is planned in May as a tribute to Wyss. The event, to be held in New York City, will cost about $100,000. But according to Groene, "it’s a fund-raising event...(it) will raise us money."

How much money is enough? No one can fault SUWA for its good fortune, but Utah’s most prominent environmental organization is starting to look more like a bank. And while its coffers have grown, membership, according to a SUWA source, has fallen to less than 14,000.

Meanwhile, threats to Utah’s wildlands are becoming more complicated and diverse. The explosion of growth in "New West" towns like Moab and St. George is creating environmental impacts unheard of 20 years ago.

Urban sprawl isn’t confined to Salt Lake City anymore. Wildlife habitat in rural Utah is being threatened by development. Recreation and the commercial exploitation of Utah wildlands are affecting a key component of wilderness — solitude. A proposed dam on the Bear River and a pipeline from Lake Powell to St. George will surely create environmental nightmares.

And yet, while SUWA remains Utah’s most vigilant watchdog of off-road vehicle abuse, oil and gas exploration and public lands grazing, it steadfastly refuses to involve itself in any of these "New West" issues.

"Our top priority," says Groene, "is protecting our wilderness proposal. Until we have protected the lands that qualify as wilderness, the issues outside our boundaries will be lower priorities."

He calls the SUWA surplus its "war chest, for use in emergencies or when extraordinary opportunities arise, and with board approval." SUWA’s rainy day fund. Meanwhile, it’s raining buckets.

If SUWA isn’t willing to deal with these other pressing issues, here’s a proposal: Could SUWA part with some of its surplus and give it to organizations that will? I can think of several worthy Utah environmental groups that could effectively use the money, including the High Uintahs Preservation Council, the Utah Rivers Council, the Nine Mile Coalition, the Utah Environmental Congress, Save Our Canyons, Friends of the Great Salt Lake, and my sentimental favorite, the Glen Canyon Institute. All of these organizations (and others) are doing good and noble work, and when someone with SUWA’s assets can lend a hand, why not?

Ultimately aren’t we all on the same side? Don’t all these groups share a common goal -- to improve the quality of Utah’s natural resources and to preserve and protect the beauty of a landscape that is dear to us all? What could be wiser and ultimately more satisfying than sharing its largesse where it can accomplish the most?

Jim Stiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr, based in Moab, Utah.

High Country News Classifieds
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Introduction: Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices located in Kanab and Escalante, Utah. We are committed to the conservation...
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...