Mike Matz is executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which is pushing to preserve 9.1 million acres of Utah canyon country as federally protected wilderness.

Monday, 3 May 1999

SALT LAKE CITY

This week should be interesting. Our grassroots activists strut their stuff in support of wilderness at public meetings hosted by the Bureau of Land Management, the opening rounds for eventually establishing more than 2 million acres as additional Wilderness Study Areas. BLM already has just over 3 million acres tucked aside in such a category. Folks gather tonight in Castle Dale, tomorrow in Tooele and Vernal, later in Richfield, Moab, Monticello, and Fillmore. Finally, on Friday, we hope to see quite a few at the Salt Lake hearing, and to help ensure it, we’re hosting a rally at Cottonwood Park.

Photo: Harvey Halpern.

The people who take time out of their lives to run the phone banks, put packets together, attend the meetings, and write their comments — they are the true champions of the wilderness movement. One woman works a 10-hour day, then brings her two young ones down here to volunteer. Although licking stamps or painting signs isn’t the most glamorous task, sometimes it can get exciting — and unfortunately nasty. Last week at the meeting in Escalante, one of our organizers had a knife pulled on him and later someone said, “We just ought to kill you.” Supporters in the same town had their irrigation system vandalized, tubing cut and put into a newly excavated foundation, and the water turned on. In the morning, they had a swimming hole, and the local water board for good measure slapped a hefty fine on them.

Condoned or not by local authorities, these egregious acts of violence and the threatening atmosphere they engender simply have no place in today’s world. They fly in the face of democracy, and the rights of all people to participate in decisions their government is considering. These are lands everyone has a stake in, and are not the fiefdoms of a few malcontents who somehow have come to believe they can do as they damn well please with them.

We have pressed the BLM to make the conditions safer at meetings. The state director ordered agency personnel to attend in uniform and for there to be at least one law enforcement officer present. We know we’ll see an article in the Salt Lake Tribune in the next couple of days highlighting the events in Escalante. Getting a reporter to make some calls got the local law officials suddenly interested in taking statements and doing a little more investigating. We stepped up our efforts to make sure we had people in sufficient numbers at each of these meetings, not so much with the intent of influencing BLM on its decision, but more to ensure a safe and comfortable atmosphere for anybody in attendance. People are responding.

The dedication of these folks, the sheer will in the face of sometimes hostile circumstances, the determination in light of the political odds: All this makes me realize the progress to date is no fluke. If people will lead, leaders will follow. The commitment to make their voices heard in this process of determining the future of their public lands is heartening. In this case, people know what’s at stake. Their efforts this time could mean more than 2 million acres being afforded legal protection as Wilderness Study Areas. That’s more land than was included in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.