Wilderness is the place that can make or break you

 

Beyond the end of most any road in southern Utah rests the crucible for my soul --? the beauty, ecological abundance and sanctuary of our public lands. With the Bunsen-burner intensity of its noontime sun, desert wilderness burns off the ephemera of my life, and there remains only the essence of emotion -- awe that connects me to the divine and to the love on earth that kept me alive during the worst despair of my life.

At the side of a cool spring in red rock country, my footprints join with those of birds and small animals. A breeze moves cottonwood leaves across a pool, reflecting blue skies and vermillion cliffs. The walls of a slot canyon seem to pulse with the glow of radiant light. I find protected alcoves where I can stand alone to imagine the lives of the ancient peoples who lived there, and wonder if they ever contemplated us.

Such places have endured a millennium unaltered, and yet every new day here brings change. Approximately four-fifths of Utah?s 54 million acres have been cleared, mined, appropriated by the military, paved, or developed over the last 150 years. Thankfully, the remaining wild lands in the southeastern parts of the state contain twisting canyons, mesas topped with groves of juniper and pinon pine, gleaming rivers and mountain peaks. These landscapes are overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

However, the BLM often operates with understaffed imprecision, as it did when it inventoried Utah's public domain for wilderness suitability in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That incomplete effort left out more eligible wild country than it included. Utah?s citizen conservationists saw the inaccuracies and set out to improve the inventory. The product of their expansive 12-year effort, unprecedented in its range and attention to detail, was a revised proposal that identifies and maps more than 9.4 million acres of wild land in Utah. Today, the citizens? proposal is known as America's Red Rock Wilderness Act.

Consistent with the Wilderness Act of 1964, America?s Red Rock Wilderness Act would preserve wild Utah in its roadless condition. Among the storied places that the act would protect are the immense Kaiparowits Plateau, the archeologically rich Cedar Mesa, the grand escarpments of the Book Cliffs, and the San Rafael Swell and Desert, an area of colorful sweeping mesas.

The San Rafael Desert is also home to Blue John Canyon, the slot canyon where, in April of 2003, I had my ultimate crucible experience. A dislodged boulder crushed and ensnared my right hand; for six days I survived by the strength of life?s most essential emotion: the love for my family and friends; then, with divine interaction, I freed myself by breaking and amputating my trapped arm. As the immediacy of death vaporized in pain, I was given the miracle of a second life, there in the wilderness.

Unfortunately, that wilderness is threatened. Voracious oil and gas policies and the skyrocketing use of off-road vehicles are destroying Utah?s iconic red rock country. Already, the BLM has sold oil and gas development leases for 125,000 acres of inventoried wild lands included in America?s Red Rock Wilderness Act. Industry-beholden minority interests and the bill?s opponents have for too long stalled wilderness legislation, believing -- against all contrary evidence -- that resource extraction is the best economic use of our public lands, and that their highest recreational purpose is as an arena for ORVs.

We all own these lands, and that puts the burden on us to speak up and halt this onslaught. Hesitation will forever destroy fragile lands and streambeds, displace wildlife, and push out international and local visitors. Throughout Utah and the rest of the country, there is great citizen support for the permanent protection of these spectacular places. But only the U.S. Congress can enact the will of the people and designate wilderness. That?s why I recently joined on Capitol Hill with people from across the country, meeting with our congressional representatives to ask for their support. It was inspiring to see how many of them signed on as co-sponsors for America?s Red Rock Wilderness Act, because they too know: Once demolished, a crucible cannot be re-formed.

Aron Ralston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is an outdoor adventurer, author and speaker, and lives in Aspen, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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