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    The BLM is reworking their Management Plan for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. *Today is the LAST DAY to submit comments. Follow this link to have your voice heard.*

    WORDS by LAUREN TEDFORD + MEDIA by JOHN DALE + ILLUSTRATIONS by HUNTER ASH

    "Wilderness Letter”, written in 1960 in a single afternoon by Wallace Stegner, has made its way around the globe. Pieces of this letter can be found scribbled on posters, displayed on walls of important buildings, quoted in speeches by influential figures, published in government reports and read aloud by Megan Smith in our video above. The author himself interprets this letter’s success “as evidence not of special literary worth, but of an earnest, world-wide belief in the idea it expresses”. The letter was addressed to David Pesonen, the member of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) assigned to evaluate the wilderness portion of the review. For those of you not familiar with the review, don’t worry— we will explain.
    Two years before Stegner ever wrote the words “Dear Mr. Pesonen” across the top of a page, Congress was busily trying to determine both the state and the importance of outdoor recreation in our country. In 1958 the suits on The Hill created a commission, the ORRRC, to do just that. This commision had three main tasks: get to the bottom of what exactly the American people needed and wanted when it came to outdoor recreation, document what resources were available to meet the needs of the people at the time and recommend policies and programs that ensured the needs of the people were met both then and in the future. No small task. It was Pesonen who was bestowed with the important role of scrutinizing the value of and need for the American wilderness areas; therefore, he was the recipient of this influential letter in 1960.
    What exactly is the “idea” behind the letter? Stegner argues for conservation, of course, but the heart of the letter goes beyond that. Stegner writes that we must protect the idea of wilderness as well as the tangible forests and streams and canyons and other bulldozer-able things that immediately come to mind when conservation is mentioned— and more than that, once we allow all the remaining wilderness areas to be exhausted, there will never be a way to reset them. Once they are gone, they are gone for good. In words from the letter itself,
    I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people…Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste.

    In other words, humankind needs wilderness- not just physically, but psychologically. Our lives are improved by it just existing at all. This, he believed, must be factored into Pesonen’s review despite being abstract and immeasurable.

    In specific, Stegner was concerned about the future of Southern Utah’s desert areas— which he feared were on the chopping block unless Congress did something to protect them. Years and years later, this same area is still a point of concern for conservationists today. Megan Smith and her family are just a few of the people unsettled over the recent announcement to reduce wild lands in this area.

    The Smiths (Megan, her husband Latimer and their two kids) live in Kanab, surrounded by the stunning red-desert scenery of Southern Utah. Places like Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are part of their everyday lives. They live alongside the land, rather than at the expense of the land.

    Megan worked for the Bureau of Land Management for several years and Latimer currently manages a river company and is a river guide— both are huge supporters of public lands, as you can imagine. The Smith kids spend as much time as possible outside. Whether playing in the dry, desert landscape in their backyard or on a multi-day Grand Canyon river trip, these kids already have a deep appreciation for wild places. About her kids, Megan said, “we’re lucky we live with open space around us, so being outdoors is part of their everyday.”

    However, if these lands that the Smiths have invested so much of their lives in fall into corporate and private hands, their kids may no longer be able to climb on the sandstone plateaus or run through the valleys or dip their feet in the streams. The land will not only be private property, but will no longer be protected from damaging practices. Megan and Latimer are both very concerned by this. Megan remarked, “the very best feature of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is its contiguous land mass, making it one of the last—and hopefully, lasting—frontiers of the West. We lose an enormous gem as [this land] is piecemealed and parceled out.”

    The Smiths have been studying all the decisions being made regarding this land and are talking to everyone that will listen about how to turn things around. Stegner is one of their inspirations. His letter went on to influence the passing of the Wilderness Act of 1964. This act allows for the designation of “wilderness areas”, America’s strictest level of land protection. One person speaking up can make one hell of a difference, and the Smiths are set on speaking up.

    Controversy surrounding Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the current events surrounding America’s public lands is way too complex to fully outline is just one story-- that’s why this is only part-one of a three-part series. Stay tuned to learn more about the Smiths and the broader concerns about the future of Grand Staircase and our public lands.