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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Utah: Red Rock Culture

Air Date: Week of

Living among the best of the great American West, George Hardeen visits with individuals in Southern Utah who express their views on wilderness versus job development, and what makes Utah unique.


CURWOOD: The breathtaking topography of southern Utah just north of the Grand Canyon is known to many of us through Lake Powell, as well as Capital Reef, Zion, Arches and Bryce Canyon National Parks. The region may be an environmental battleground today, but a century ago few people saw or wanted this harsh, unforgiving land. We sent producer George Hardeen to the area to find out why people care so deeply about this place and what's at stake for their future.

(Cows lowing, a man yelling)

HARDEEN: There's little this unforgiving landscape of deep endless canyons and huge, high plateaus will give up, other than some grama grass or side oats. The soil of southern Utah is too rocky, too dry for large-scale farming. So to survive, generations of Mormon ranchers have relied on cattle to make their living. Cows are hauled in from the range to corrals near the highway, where waiting semis load up.

(A car beeper beeps. A motor starts.)

HARDEEN: Rancher Carla Johnson says those who run cattle here don't like talk of setting limits. While it's public land they've leased for grazing, they feel like they've earned the right to call it their own.

CARLA JOHNSON: This is now the third generation in the family, this land. You'll see how beautiful this land is and how well taken care of it's been, and you'll see why we get upset when people come in and say well now, we're here to tell you how to take care of it. When the only reason it's still in this good condition is because we've taken care of it. People take care of the land because they love it.

(The sounds of chains, a motor)

HARDEEN: We're about 50 miles east of Zion National Park. Except for the highway, not a manmade structure has been visible for miles. A rutted dirt road takes us to the Jepson homestead, owned by Carla's father in law, Calvin Johnson. Even before saying hello, he asks me if I'm an environmentalist. Environmentalists promoting wilderness are not welcome in these parts.

CALVIN JOHNSON: We definitely do not believe in wilderness. This whole area through here, northern Arizona, southern Utah, do not believe in wilderness.

HARDEEN: Any wilderness. Not even the smaller amount proposed in the Hatch bill, which would leave millions of acres open to possible development: dams, coal mining, roads, power lines. Mr. Johnson says this land doesn't need outside protection. It still looks much like it always has: an empty, ancient place of exposed rock carved into tortured shapes by wind and rain. Countless stairstep mesas in shades of white, tan and rust, stretching to the horizon.

CALVIN JOHNSON: This is all horseback country. Now we go back down here 10 miles, we go back of those whites up there and to the Arizona line, and then we go over as far as you can see, that white pinnacle over there? That's where your Paria Creek comes down and we go to the Paria Creek. And we go right up under, we're just a few miles under Bryce Canyon up there.

HARDEEN: Mr. Johnson has ranched here for more than 50 years. It's been a difficult life, he says, but once you get the land's sand in your boots you can never get it out.

CALVIN JOHNSON: When you're out here like we are today, you know, you're at peace, see. But it's a way of life that very few can become adapted to.

HARDEEN: Mr. Johnson's pioneer ancestors settled this rugged, inhospitable, but awesome region nobody else had wanted. Now, he says, the government and environmentalists seem intent on boxing them in and locking them out.

CALVIN JOHNSON: We're afraid of the government, we're afraid of the states and Federal people that want to do this, see? So we build up a defense. And if they would come into this area, let live and experiment and want us to all join in and make it look like we all want to live together and we all want to have a life together, why it'd be the best thing can happen.

NOEL: Probably even goes back to the Mormon pioneers.

HARDEEN: Mike Noel, an environmental specialist for the Bureau of Land Management, has been here for 22 years.

NOEL: God sent them here to use the land and to use the resources of the land. It even goes back to, you can go as far back as the Garden of Eden.

HARDEEN: Mike Noel says distrust toward the government and outsiders is practically part of Southern Utahns' heritage. The Mormons were chased from Illinois into the untamed wilds of the west. Mutual distrust between them and the rest of the country resulted in Utah being one of the last states to join the Union. More recently, fallout from nuclear testing in the 1950s led to thousands of cancers and heightened the sense of betrayal. Now, residents here have seen laws like the Endangered Species Act shut down the forests and close saw mills, throwing their top wage earners out of work and forcing hundreds of families to move away. Mike Noel says the last thing these people want now is for the government to change how they use public land and how they earn their living.

NOEL: People in this area here do not want to be the bed makers and the toilet bowl cleaners and the service people, for people back East or New York or wherever to come in here and take care of them. They want to be able to stand up and be the people they were. Now, you have another group of people that mainly come from the environmental community that feel like this is the last remaining vestige of pristine lands in the continental United States, and they want to see it preserved and left exactly like it was when God created it.

BIMSTEIN: I'm Philip Bimstein. I'm the Mayor of Springdale, Utah. And I'm also a composer of alternative classical music.

HARDEEN: In many respects, Philip Bimstein is as different from Calvin Johnson as one could get. Raised in Chicago, educated, immersed in the arts and music. But he says he loves southern Utah as much as any native born here.

BIMSTEIN: I think what it is, is it's the color of the sandstone, the Navajo sandstone, the slick rock. And the green against that. It's really a visual, aesthetic kind of thing. When I came here about 7-and-half years ago and saw this house for sale up on this hill overlooking Zion National Park I just couldn't resist and I just did it.

HARDEEN: Rather than a livelihood, Mr. Bimstein draws inspiration from Utah's remote desert lands; and rather than moving livestock from the back of a horse, he manipulates cattle digitally in a computer-assisted composition titled, "Garland Hersey's Cows."

(Music plays; a cow lows)

BIMSTEIN: As you look out my windows here, or step outside, you know, you can't help but be impressed by the feeling of space here. And I think that seeing these canyons off in the distance and these mountains and right now we have a little bit of snow at the top of them, you have this enormous feeling of space. And that gives me a feeling of potential. And it gives me a lot of room creatively to move around in.

HARDEEN: Mr. Bimstein says pristine, untouched view scapes represent the future. They attract visitors and their wallets to his town. He supports wilderness designation from here clear through where Calvin Johnson runs his stock. About 100 miles across the canyons from Springdale is the settlement of Boulder, Utah. It's home to Mark Austin, a former contractor who moved here with his family a year and a half ago and built an upscale lodge. With just a handful of residents, Boulder is barely a town.

(Frying on a skillet)

AUSTIN: Well, Willy's our head chef, right. So anyway, he was getting the small town blues the Boulder bore, and decided that he was going to head up to the Salt Lake, the big city for the weekend. So he's gone and I'm flipping spuds.

HARDEEN: Mark Austin's lodge will appeal to tourists, but he thinks ranches and cattle should not be driven out. Grazing is compatible with wilderness, he says, but some other uses of the land are not.

AUSTIN: You know, we can't just destroy the wilderness and turn it into a strip mine or whatever, and quite frankly, you know, it's really worth preserving because we can't recreate it. Boulder, Utah, is an amazing place. It's like an oasis on the, in the red rock canyons of southern Utah. It's great expanses of green, alfalfa fields and pastures. There's a lot of water here. There's a lot of cattle here. There's just not very many people here.

HARDEEN: Like cattlemen, Mark Austin wants to preserve the ranching lifestyle that's been a way of life here for well over 100 years. But he also wants to see southern Utah's incomparable landscape preserved and protected for the future. In the balance, he says, is man's redemption.

AUSTIN: We need some security that these lands are going to stay the way they are and that the encroachment of man is minimal and it's really the soul, you know, and sacred ground, and we need to designate a wilderness as a way of saying thank you.

HARDEEN: For Living on Earth, I'm George Hardeen in Boulder, Utah.



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