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
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Western Slope Conservation Center Paonia, CO WSCC seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking and a creative problem-solver. Position Summary: The Executive Director leads...
  • ARIZONA STATE DIRECTOR
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGEMENT/HOSPITALITY SERVICES
    Seasoned ranch manager of award-winning conservation ranch seeking position as nature reserve/resort or ranch manager. Visit philipmoonwalker.com for resume and certifications. Contact: [email protected]
  • PART-TIME OREGON GRANT WRITER
    Help advance rights for people, communities, and nature - Part-time grant writer. The Oregon Community Rights Network (ORCRN) has been active over the last six...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Utah Public Lands Program Director Location: Southern Utah Position: Full Time (40 hours per week) Supervisor: Conservation Director About us: The Grand Canyon...
  • FSBO PROPERTY-SOUTHEAST ARIZONA
    Located in an area steeped in history, this gentleman's ranch sits at the entrance to the renowned Cave Creek Canyon. Enjoy picturesque views of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • LAND CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    JOIN OUR TEAM! The New Mexico Land Conservancy in Santa Fe is seeking a Land Conservation Project Manager who will work to protect land and...
  • HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NP
    Comfortable home at foot of Boulder Mountain, on one fenced acre. Amazing views!
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • 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....
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • 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...
  • 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.