Learning to bend: Settling Utah's road wars

  • Utah's Cottonwood Canyon Road travels parts of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

    Flickr user Pspechtenhauser (CC)
 

Roads in the Wilderness: Conflict in Canyon Country
Jedediah S. Rogers
242 pages, hardcover: $39.95.
University of Utah Press, 2013.

Some fear that we will saddle our children with trillions of dollars in federal debt. That would be too bad, but it would be a minor inconvenience compared to what our forefathers cursed us with: the 1866 federal law known as R.S. 2477.  Like other such gifts -- including the 1872 Mining Law -- R.S. 2477 lays a heavy, destructive, expensive hand on the present.

The statute's 19 words said that anyone who wished to could build a public "highway" across the West's public land. That highway could not be extinguished by the later creation of a homestead, a national park or even a wilderness.

R.S. 2477 was repealed in 1976, but its highways -- sometimes nothing more than rough trails made by cowboys herding cattle -- are still being fought over in the West. That is especially true in Utah, where the state has launched 30 federal lawsuits to establish 36,000 miles of mechanized rights of way through existing wilderness, national parks and monuments, and wilderness study areas.

Into this expensive, litigious mess bravely comes the young historian Jedediah S. Rogers. With Roads in the Wilderness: Conflict in Canyon Country, Rogers attempts to connect two warring ways of life. He asks us to look at roads not only as physical structures but as symbols of culture and history. In Rogers' telling, the Mormons of southern Utah regard the primitive roads their ancestors pioneered as comparable to the naves of medieval cathedrals. To interfere with the public's ability to travel them amounts to sacrilege. But to those who favor wilderness, the sacrilege is motorized travel through red-rock canyons and riparian areas.

Rogers humanizes the conflict over wilderness by portraying some of the people most involved. He is sympathetic both toward Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, and toward Abbey's nemesis, uranium miner and Lake Powell resort developer Calvin Black, immortalized by Abbey as the character "Bishop Love."

Abbey hated roads -- the better the road, the more he hated it -- and the reservoir he called Lake Foul. Black appreciated Lake Powell because it also served as a highway, and so loved roads, writes Rogers, that he assumed the 1960s slogan "Black is Beautiful" referred to pavement.

Given the area's bitter history -- which includes the Grand County commissioners repeatedly, and feloniously, sending bulldozers into Moab's Negro Bill Canyon to "refresh" the disappearing road -- what could bring the two sides to the table now?

Partly it is the passing of generations; both Black and Abbey are gone, for example. And partly it is exhaustion from decades of expensive struggle.

But it may also be fear of the future: Utah could win its R.S. 2477 cases, or President Barack Obama might unleash the 1906 Antiquities Act, as President Clinton did at Grand Staircase-Escalante, and create de facto wilderness. Or both events might happen, further complicating what is already a mess.

Rogers' book is both perfectly timed and a sign of the times, appearing as Utah Congressman Rob Bishop seems to be progressing toward a two-state solution in Utah, with some public land being protected and some now-protected land being opened to development.

Although the book is well-timed, it isn't always well-written, and it lacks clear maps to illustrate chapters about the road wars in places like Arch Canyon and the Book Cliffs.

While Rogers lacks the partisan passion of an Abbey or Black, he has passions appropriate to this time: for compromise and the merging of interests. He believes that if the two sides were to bend a little, each would win more than they could by defeating the other in Congress or the White House or the courts.

He urges environmentalists to see desert homesteads, mine shafts, abandoned orchards and even roads as part of a landscape shaped by humans but still dominated by nature. He quotes environmental historian Bill Cronon, who has written that the exclusion of man's works from nature is dehumanizing.

And he asks southern Utah's Mormon residents to acknowledge that the heroic pioneer days, when wagon trains were lowered to the Colorado River by rope down the Hole in the Rock notch, are over. We have blasted an interstate highway through the San Rafael Swell and turned parts of the Colorado, San Juan and Escalante rivers into ponds. Progress now, Rogers argues, is not demonstrated by how much more nature we can bulldoze, but by how much we can refrain from conquering:

"In a country -- a world -- that is increasingly developed one acre at a time, we need these places to keep us rooted. The (Colorado Plateau) region is one of the few places where large tracts of wildlands exist."

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