Last year I became a great fan of John Denver. While some people dismiss his music as simple or cheesy, I (and many other fans) find it straightforward, heartfelt, and beautiful. His voice is gentle, the music itself lyrical, and his lyrics poignant. While each song brings out the emotional beauty and even the sadness of human experience, I admire his lyrics for the optimism they evoke. One of the best examples of this is the short but stirring, “The Eagle And The Hawk.” Beginning quietly with the solo strumming of an acoustic guitar, John’s voice then fades in and both voice and music crescendo to soar just as the magnificent birds he describes:
I am the eagle, I live in high country
In rocky cathedrals I reach to the sky
I am the hawk and there’s blood on my feathers
But time is still turning, they soon will be dry.
And all those who see me and all who believe in me
Share in the freedom I feel when I fly.
This song brings to mind countless times I have been able to witness both eagles and hawks sailing above the landscape. While there is much I could say about watching these great creatures of the sky, I wish to broaden my focus to the inspiring landscapes of eastern and southern Utah and why they need to be protected. I specify Utah not because I don’t know or care about other areas, but for me, it is closest to home. I do hope that what I say here will encourage you to take action in favor of the environment wherever you live.
I was born and raised in Utah and have spent a lot of time in the outdoors, much of it in southern Utah. Though I grew up in the urban sprawl of Utah County, my family has a long history of living in the valleys below Bryce Canyon National Park. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I decided to head back toward my family roots and I recently finished a nine month stint volunteering and working at Bryce Canyon. Every day I met people not just from all over the U.S., but all over the world. I can tell you that one of the most common reactions from people at seeing the Bryce Amphitheater for the first time is awed silence. That says ten times more than what words could try to say because words become trivial in the face of such natural beauty. Though Bryce is a rather small park, I never grew tired of hiking the same trails and visiting the same viewpoints. Even many of my coworkers who have worked there for twenty years or more said the views never get old. In my short time there, I noticed new things every day, whether it was how the sun lit a particular ridge at different times of day, the ravens cawing at one another perched on separate hoodoos, how the wind sighed in the pines and brought out the vanilla fragrance of the ponderosas. In short, each day was a new experience.
Although I have temporarily returned to heavily populated northern Utah, my time working at Bryce Canyon deepened my love for the park and the area. It also helped me better understand why people come from all over the world to see this park and other areas of Utah. Having spent much time in the parks, monuments, and wilderness areas in this state, I know that these places are a source of joy and refuge to many, many people. There are many places of awesome beauty and serenity all over the U.S. and it is good that they are under federal protection (that, however, brings its own set of challenges which I will not go into at this time). But I also know that there are many people within this state, people with political power and authority, who only see dollar signs when they look on Utah’s wild lands. There is no denying that southern and eastern Utah hold large amounts of coal, natural gas, and oil. There is also no denying that these landscapes are desert landscapes. The desert is powerful and can be unforgiving to both plants and animals seeking to live in it. But it is also very delicate. It does not have the moisture to consistently replenish itself unlike places such as the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. Wilderness areas of Utah are natural treasures in a delicately balanced system. When the land gets ravaged from mining or drilling, it will never recover because it is too dry. Roads, even ones rarely used, become scars and it takes decades to erase them. People all over the world visit Utah to see these stunning vistas, plateaus, red rocks, canyons, mountains, animal and plant life, as well as learn about the Native American history available here. They come to see wilderness—not smoke plumes, dynamited hillsides, and piles of gravel and mine tailings, not to mention worry about contaminants in their drinking water and breathe the same polluted air available in cities from where many of these visitors are escaping. Utah is a state of diverse landscapes. Nonetheless, they are unique and fragile and fragility needs protection.
Greater Canyonlands, comprised of 1.4 million acres in southern and eastern Utah, is one such area in great risk of being leased out to oil and gas companies and opening the way for oil shale and tar sands industries—two of the most environmentally destructive methods of resource extraction. Oil shale and tar sands methods produce vast amounts of toxic sludge, two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases than that of conventional oil methods, and require huge amounts of water in the process. Why is it a good idea to use the limited water sources within Greater Canyonlands for industries that will only contaminate them? These water sources are vital to native wildlife, including seven species federally listed as endangered or threatened. Equally reliant on these water sources are some 960 plant species that provide habitat for wildlife.
I sometimes see bumper stickers that read, “Drill here, drill now, pay less.” That statement is false. Why? Because oil and gas companies know those resources are limited. They’ll make sure they get the highest profits possible while the resources last. They don’t care about helping the American people pay less for the fossil fuels of which we are so dependant; they prefer raising prices so they can continue their record profits. If oil, gas, and coal companies did care, why do energy costs keep rising, why are they discouraging the development of sustainable energy, and why do those companies continue recording multi-billion dollar profits every fiscal year?
The days of cheap fuel are long gone. Are we going to keep digging and drilling in a desperate search for a dwindling resource, much like ever hopeful old timers panning for gold, or are we going to move forward with the technology we are capable of and pursue unlimited, cleaner alternatives that will help remove us from our dependence on the foreign oil we so fear as well as stop spoiling beautiful lands for millions of people just so a few can make a buck? If we continue using fossil fuels at the astonishing rate that we are now, they will be gone much too soon and it will be a hell of a long wait before we get any more. Once those fossil fuels are gone, they’re gone. Then what are we left with? Scarred, torn up, contaminated lands and water sources that nobody wants to visit, let alone live in. The more we develop the land for oil, gas, and coal, the less wilderness there will be for people to come visit year after year after year. Tourism is dependent on outsiders and it can be shifty, but in the end it is more sustainable because it will be around much longer than any fossil fuels.
“People don’t protect what they don’t know, what they don’t come to love.” (Kai Hagan, “My Wilderness”, Wilderness Society). I’m touched by the truthfulness of this statement. We can’t protect what we don’t know about, so the first steps to protection are to know and to love. If you have not had a chance to visit the national parks and monuments of Utah, make some time. Pick one and go experience it, even for just an overnight visit. Get involved with environmental organizations such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Nature Conservancy, national park Natural History Associations, the Wilderness Society, and the Center For Biological Diversity, and learn about issues that will ultimately affect every one of us. Discover and care for natural places wherever you live. You don’t have to call yourself an environmentalist, you just have to see and care and know that the more we endanger the earth, the more we endanger ourselves.
People need nature. Not just city-planned parks and botanical gardens, but wilderness areas where you can look for miles and not see a single bit of fiberglass, asphalt, and steel, where you can stand and feel as if you are the only person on earth, where you can observe animals in their natural environments, where you can gaze up at a night sky lit with thousands of stars. Learn about the land and the plants and animals that need the land to survive. There is more to life than looking forward to the next paycheck.
Come dance with the west wind and touch on the mountaintops
Sail o’er the canyons and up to the stars
And reach for the heavens and hope for the future
And all that we can be and not what we are.
“All that we can be and not what we are”—the final line of this song raises important questions: What are we? What can we be? What do we want now and what do we want for future generations? Will we be greedy and apathetic? Will we be generous and sympathetic? We are capable of doing a lot of good—we are doing a lot of good. We are capable of doing irreparable harm as well and we can do better to be responsible stewards of the earth. Let us refuse to let our world be wasted. Let us reach outside of ourselves and acknowledge that what we do now will impact the future. Let us make sure that what we do now will ensure a positive future for generations to come.