by Terry Tempest Williams


We are at a crease in history where we must decide as human beings if we want to sustain our relationship to wild places. In the American West, we want to possess, to control, to remain sovereigns against the political pull of the East. We raise clenched fists to the wind. We are still afraid of wildness: wild places, wild acts, wild thoughts. But if we were to bring our hands down in the gesture of prayer, perhaps we would find that the source of humanity lies in our restraint, our compassion, our ability to imagine living in accordance with nature.

"We are not debating 'wilderness' here in trying to decide the fate of Utah's undeveloped public lands," writes Barry Lopez. "The term is too restrictive. We're debating the future direction of Western Civilization...A brutal, pointed lesson of human history is that unhealthy civilizations die. Civilizations that are physically, spiritually, or economically corrosive fall apart. Their people wither. If we do not want to pass away as a civilization, let alone as a Western nation...We need to see what a grave decision the release of public land for development is."

We have a chance to do something fine and brave and visionary. There are still vast expanses of wild country in Utah, country that supports mountain lions, black bears, elk, deer, and bobcats. It is a tapestry of plant life that has much to teach us about adaptation. It is a desert draped by beautiful rivers where a thirst for water is matched by a thirst for beauty and solitude. It is rugged terrain the color of blood where turkey vultures waver on heat waves that blister our skin. The Colorado Plateau is an acquired taste.

We can protect these lands, secure them for the future, keep them whole as they keep us sane. This is not about economics. This is not a rift between environmentalists and the preservation of ranching culture in the American West. And it is especially not about settling a political feud once and for all. This is a call for redrock democracy.

On September 18, 1996, President William Jefferson Clinton declared 1.7 million acres as the Grand Staircase--Escalante National Monument, an act of vision and prudence, a gift to the American people. This spring, Conoco has announced it will begin oil and gas exploration within the monument and filed two drilling applications.

As Americans, we must ask ourselves, "Can we really survive the worship of our own destructiveness? Who can say how much land can be used for extractive purposes until it is rendered barren forever? And who can say what the human spirit will be crying out for one hundred years from now?"

We still have no BLM wilderness in Utah. This month, Congressman Maurice Hinchey will be reintroducing HR 1500, America's Redrock Wilderness Bill, designating 5.7 million acres in this corner of the Colorado Plateau. Please contact your representative if you would like to see this desert legislation pass.

The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with clasped hands hoping we might act with restraint, that we might leave room for the life that is destined to come. To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle. Perhaps the wilderness we fear is the pause between our own heartbeats, the silence that reminds us we live only by grace. Wilderness lives by this same grace. It is within our legislative power to create merciful laws. Can we say the word "mercy" when speaking about the land? Can we minimize the harm to others, our own species and beyond?

I am a fifth generation Utahn. When Brigham Young looked across the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and declared, "This is the place," there are those of us who still believe him. Our family has made its living for four generation by laying pipe in the substrate of Utah. We have benefited financially by the state's own capacity to grow and we have contributed to that growth by our own numbers. But there comes a time when we must ask ourselves, "What sustains a quality of life?" For our family, the quality of our lives is in direct proportion to time spent in the natural world. This is what sustains us physically, emotionally, spiritually.

Wilderness is not an extravagance or a luxury, it is a place of original memory where we can witness and reflect on how the world is held together by natural laws. It is a landscape of humility. Our shared love for the land brings us home, again and again. It seems simplistic to say we cannot bear to see this unusual country ruthlessly maimed, dammed, drilled or developed. But we can't. And it is. We stand before these remaining acres in a compromised state. We ask for the remote canyons, buttes, and mesas of southern Utah to be protected. They hold our stories, our dreams, our deepest secrets. Utah's wilderness is one of the last strongholds of peace. It is a large part of why we choose to live here and it is certainly why we stay. These lands are national lands. They will disarm you. They swing the doors of our imagination wide open.

Terry Tempest Williams is the author of Refuge: an Unnatural History of Family and Place. She has been particulary active in the movement to preserve wilderness in her native state of Utah.


Archived 4/28/97 - Bill McKibben on The Problem That Won't Go Away.