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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Higher Ground

Longtime OP contributor and Utah explorer James Kay gives us a unique look at a landscape that needs protection

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Sunset on Factory Butte, west of the town of Hanksville, Utah

"Bank to the left and lift the wing," I shout over my shoulder above the roar of the engine. I flip open the window, stick my head out into the cold air, and with a death grip on my camera to counter the blast of wind, I quickly snap a few frames as the serrated ridges of Factory Butte, 2,000 feet below me, glow in the early-morning light.

Left To Right: Sunset on Factory Butte, west of the town of Hanksville, Utah; Valley of the Gods at sunrise in San Juan County, Utah; Harris Wash in the Escalante Canyons of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah.

Rising 1,500 feet from the barren desert floor east of Capitol Reef National Park, the monolithic form of Factory Butte is ground zero in the never-ending battle over the appropriate use of Utah's public lands. While wilderness advocates have been striving to protect this stark sandstone monolith and the surrounding land as federally designated wilderness for decades, off-road vehicle (ORV) enthusiasts have had their own ideas. In the years since that predawn flight, they have turned the area surrounding the tower's base into an unofficial off-road playground. Countless ATVs and dirt bikes have sliced and diced its slopes into a spaghetti network of trails and scarred ridgelines. While ORV advocates would argue that the damage they cause is trivial compared to the prodigious erosive powers of Mother Nature, others often see the scars as a desecration of sacred ground, hence the battle.

Sunrise over Elephant Canyon, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
When I moved to Utah in 1972, I was immediately mesmerized by the magnificently "empty" country that surrounded me, with its rugged alpine mountains reaching thousands of feet into clear western skies and millions upon millions of acres of convoluted redrock canyons, mighty rivers and bottomless gorges. Exploring the remote backcountry of the West soon became my passion and eventually led to my career as a landscape photographer.

Eight years before I moved west, Congress passed the Wilderness Act. It defined wilderness in legal terms and allowed for public land to be officially designated and protected. The Act poetically describes wilderness as: "A wilderness, in contrast to those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." In a nutshell, the Act allows for no roads or permanent structures and no motorized or mechanized vehicles. If you want to enter, you have to ride a horse, walk or paddle a canoe—or you could simply drive up to the edge and gaze in. Now, 47 years later, of America's 2.3 billion acres, 4.7%, or 109 million acres, have been officially designated as wilderness. Perhaps the goals of the Act were best summarized by Lyndon Johnson when he signed the bill: "If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than with sorrow, not only must we achieve the miracles of technology, we must leave them with a glimpse of the world as we found it, not just what it looked like when we were through with it."

Looking east at Chesler Park with Bridger Jack Mesa in the background and the Abajo Mountains in the upper-right corner, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
When it comes to congressionally designated wilderness, Utah is an anomaly in the American West. From sinuous redrock canyons to glacier-carved alpine peaks, Utah has some of the most varied, unique and wild undeveloped country on earth. Yet the state has far less designated wilderness than any other western state and even less than Florida. Of its 53 million acres, Utah has 1,160,247 acres of designated wilderness, or 2.2% of its land base. California has 15 million acres; Idaho, 4.5 million; Arizona, 4.5 million; Colorado, 3.7 million; Nevada, 3.4 million. The state of Georgia has more designated wilderness than the entire redrock region of southern Utah. Many would argue that this disparity is due to the inherent knee-jerk reaction among Utah's politicians against anything that might limit revenue generation from resource extraction or land development with little recognition of the value of these lands in their undeveloped condition.


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