The honey, bone, and amber-toned canyons in my Utah backyard are a magnet for tourists, drawn by the beauty of light on stone. I live at the gateway to the Colorado Plateau’s wild canyons, places like Capitol Reef, the Bear Ears, and Cedar Mesa. Tourism and recreation are the lifeblood of the local economy. For us, wilderness is an asset just as it is, with no need to pockmark the land with drill rigs and sprawl.
At night we see an awesome lattice of pulsing light across an obsidian black sky. Most visitors who stand under that spectacular firmament tell us it is the first time they’ve seen the faint veil of the Milky Way and the experience is breath-taking. The canyons that fall away around us offer endless recreation but also rare encounters with solitude and silence. There are vistas too vast to fit into cameras.
But after forty years of living in one desert or another, I know firsthand that America’s iconic desert landscapes, places like Canyonlands and Arches national parks, are the exceptions, not the rule. The rule is that we dig up, dump on, scrape, bomb, drill, pave, over-graze, and otherwise abuse our deserts, most of them public lands owned by all Americans. I believe our understanding of the ecological dynamics of America’s western landscapes is flawed and deserts are exhibit A. We act as if there is no upstream, no downstream, nothing whole or alive in the middle of our schemes and deals.
Thankfully, there are exceptions. National parks and monuments and formally designated wilderness areas form a vital commons where humans and wild creatures can co-exist, where a landscape wrought by aridity has a chance to be resilient, where ecosystem integrity matters and the usual abuses are restrained.
Our public lands offer us the opportunity to experience the land that shaped the nation’s character. More than that, my wilderness experiences taught me that human life is embedded in nature. The food that becomes us is a synthesis of sunlight, rain, and soil. Soil is leaf, limb, root, bone, carcass, carapace, and flower. We drink from a watershed. We breathe each other’s air. We live on a fluid planet where whatever goes downwind or downstream eventually settles into blood and bone. I know what is at stake because wild land grounded me.
It has also humbled me. I have wandered across Cedar Mesa and seen the crumbling towers, pot shards, and holy kivas that are scattered through the canyons. I have climbed the Bears Ears above mesas laced with ruins that demonstrate the crushing power of a harsh climate. I know that the deep and unique history of indigenous people holds valuable lessons for us today as we try to live within the carrying capacity of a changing world. It is time to empower tribes in the homeland they hold sacred. It is time to listen.
The great novelist Wallace Stegner sorted the conflicting impulses of settlers in his beloved American West into two camps. The “boomers” saw the frontier as an opportunity to get rich quick and move on: the conquistadors, gold miners, buffalo hunters, and land scalpers. They are still among us, trying to frack and drill their way to Easy Street across our public lands. Then there were those who Stegner called the “nesters” who came to stay and struggled to understand the land and its needs. Their quest was to become native to this land.
That division between boomers and nesters is, of course, too simple. All of us have the urge to consume and move, as well as the urge to nest, so our choices are rarely clear or final. Ecological citizenship is the struggle to choose wisely and to live with each other’s choices. Today, that struggle is intensifying in the American West as heat-parched forests ignite, reservoirs dry up, and sparse mountain snow is ever more stained with blowing dust.
I believe we have sacrificed enough to the extractive compulsion of yesterday’s Manifest Destiny. It is time to swing the balance and protect natural treasures from the incessant blade of development. It is time to honor America’s ancient history and to listen to those who tell a story that can help us understand our relationship to the land and our obligations to future generations. It is time to assure that our children and grandchildren and their children will be able to come here and be grounded, healed, humbled, and awed by the dance of light on stone. They too can stand under the stars and understand their lives anew because the Bears Ears will still be whole and holy. If we act boldly to save what is left, I believe they will bless us for our wisdom and generosity.