Wind kicked up a plume of red dust when my wife and me stepped out of the truck. We were in Utah’s Cathedral Valley – a lesser-known attraction just north of Capitol Reef National Park – on our way to nowhere in particular. My wife took a look around the barren landscape and smiled.
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“Isn’t this amazing?” I asked. I’d been to Cathedral Valley dozens of time. She’d never been.
“It feels . . . wild,” she said. Then she saw a cool rock formation and took off across the red desert floor, her silhouette framed by the massive mesas dotted throughout the valley.
It certainly is wild, I thought. And I really hope it stays that way.
My wife and I have both watched Utah change from a rural haven for the country lifestyle, to something resembling the sprawling mess of any other unremarkable metro area in the country.
Gone are the fields where I built forts, hunted rabbits, and caught frogs as a kid. Orchards and ranches have given way to subdivisions of cutout condos, each with a postage-stamp sized lawn. Main Street has five traffic lights; when I grew up, it had none.
Seeing childhood memories disappear hurts. It’s like my soul aches for the once wide-open expanses of endless adventure the valleys in Utah used to offer.
What hurts more, though, is that our state’s unending desire to develop every last parcel of land has placed us in a situation where we no longer care to keep nature wild.
This isn’t just a Utah problem, either. But I’m a fifth-generation Utahn. My ancestors were among the first pioneers to get here in 1847. I know this land, and reckon I’m qualified to speak about it. That’s why I won’t address similar problems in Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Utah faces an uphill battle in balancing the state’s insatiable appetite for development with the very real need to keep nature wild. It’s as though the state wants to prove itself as a national contender, even if that’s not what its residents desire.
Let me give a bit of context here. For years, Utah was (and still is, in many cases) the butt of jokes here in the West. Provo – the college town where Brigham Young University is located – famously didn’t sell alcohol on Sundays for years. That rule was reversed in 2011.
Draymond Green, the polarizing forward for the Golden State Warriors, lamented when Golden State had to play the Utah Jazz in the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs. Salt Lake City, Green said, didn’t have enough nightlife for the high-flying Warriors.
In 2019, the Utah State Legislature passed a law allowing 5% ABV beer to be sold in grocery and convenience stores. Before then, Utah was a 4% ABV state, and major beer companies quit brewing for the tiny market in the Beehive State.
Capping it all off is the presence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (of which I am a proud member). The church teaches strict observance of the Sabbath, so a lot of restaurants and other establishments aren’t open on Sundays. The church also encourages its members to marry young and start families, and it’s been joked that the state logo should change from the beehive to a minivan, due to their ubiquitous presence.
So yeah, Utah gets made fun of. A lot. Most of the jokes are unfair, and more of them center around attacking the church. Years of that treatment has given Utah an inferiority complex, and rightfully so.
To answer that, Utah has the best economy in the country. Its tech industry rivals that of Silicon Valley, and our flat state income tax of 4.85% is attractive enough to lure tons of companies here. In the past decade, that’s exactly what’s happened.
While the response from Utah to all those who made us the butt of jokes for a century has been amazing to see, I can’t help but wonder if we could’ve done things better. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but I’m amazed we never had the foresight to develop responsibly alongside the natural world.
You can be skiing 45 minutes after your plane lands in Salt Lake City. Some of my busiest days as a guide are on the rivers located a half-hour from the Wasatch Front – Utah’s population center.
Agriculture still runs the state legislature, and land access laws favor the landowners over the public.
We’re surrounded by the natural world, and it has shaped much of Utah’s culture. For years, the annual fall break from K-12 schools coincided with the opening of the deer hunt. Everyone, it seems, has stories of fishing at either Strawberry Reservoir, or Flaming Gorge.
But it’s the little streams and ponds, the stands of woods at the edge of towns – the places where nature was wild and terrifying and exciting for a young kid – that have completely disappeared. In its quest for national relevance, Utah has lost so much of what makes it unique.
That places like Cathedral Valley still exist is a testament to the American public lands system. It’s far from perfect, but at least I know we’ll still have some wildness left here, even when every last parcel of decent land is developed, taxed, and sold.
Utah’s population is still booming. We’re expected to double in citizens by 2050, and I don’t see where we’re going to fit all those folks. We certainly don’t have the water resources to support that growth, and in the middle of a terrible drought, it’s hard to imagine we ever will.
The best we can hope for, then, is to keep nature wild. Keep the remaining bastions of wilderness as perfect as we can.
They’re all we have left. Once a developer gets their hands on property, there’s no restoring it.
We’ve already lost so much. I pray we don’t lose more.
Spencer Durrant is a writer, fishing guide, and bamboo rod builder from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, a columnist for Hatch Magazine, and teaches middle school English so he can afford to fly fish. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.
So why is Rob Bishop and his type so popular in Utah? He represents the threat you outline. I realize the phenomenon is not unique to Utah. We have the same issues in Minnesota.
Bishop appeals to the independent, “don’t-tell-me-what-to-do” mindset that’s so prevalent in the West. Generally speaking, folks out here want to be left alone to do what we want. That federal officials who’ve never set foot in our national forests make the rules to govern them rubs us the wrong way. Add to that the disregard for rural communities, and it’s easy to see why people like Bishop can garner so much support. But Bishop doesn’t tell the whole story – like every politician, he says what people want to hear. He never comes clean to the reality that state-owned and managed lands in the West wouldn’t work in the long term. Politicians of his ilk never admit to what they really want to do with all our public land – sell it to the highest bidder.
Your well-written article resonated quite deeply with me. I’m sympathetic with the roots of the argument (disregard for rural communities, national forest rules, etc) you cite, but they are entirely misplaced and self-destructive. Rural Utah, just like Rural Minnesota, is a deficit region. It will always be in deficit to Salt Lake and St. Paul. Always has been, always will be. What rural regions lack can not be made up through deregulation, tax cuts, resource extraction and hopes that the market will provide prosperity. A surplus recycling mechanism is needed – i.e a government responsive to community needs. It’s in Salt Lake City and Minneapolis’ interest for higher taxes, not out of pity but of self-interest, which can be recycled to deficit regions in the form of investment. What people like Rob Bishop offer is the people’s stick with which to beat the people. Nothing in his legislative career can be understood as conservatism, or good fiscal policy. It is simply a means to use the power of the government to radically interfere in free markets to benefit the well-connected instead of communities. I say this as a conservative who believes in conservative values (i.e the Enlightenment and not Reagan).
Forest Service mismanagement is well-documented. But the key fact is that it’s public land. Proximity to a National Forest offers no greater claim to ownership than someone in a city. The definition of fiscal conservatism is not selling public land at less than value for private profit and public subsidy.
There’s definitely contradiction and faulty thinking involved in why folks follow politicians like Bishop. I was just trying to shed some more light on why politicians like him have a following.
I hadn’t thought about rural and urban areas that way before. Economically, you’re right, but I see another side of it, which is that rural places offer benefits that are hard to put monetary value on. The ability to grow up in a place where kids ride 4 wheelers down the street, where you don’t have to lock your doors, and where there’s a healthy relationship between the land and it’s people, isn’t something you can buy. That’s why we live in those places to begin with. They offer a lifestyle that’s worth the sacrifices in earning potential, amenities, etc. Folks are just tired of being told how to live, of living under the threat of public lands being sold to the highest bidder – of all the ways politicians use rural communities as playing cards against the other side.
Anyways – this is a fascinating discussion, and I’m glad you’ve taken the time to reply here. I think there’s tons more to get into on the topic.