What Wallace Stegner Taught Me about the Bears Ears

This article presumes two things: that the reader is familiar with 1) the controversy surrounding the Bears Ears National Monument, and 2) the writer Wallace Stegner. For those familiar with only one or neither, here’s a woefully inadequate primer.

Bears Ears is 1.35 million acres of public land located in southeastern Utah, which was declared a national monument by President Barack Obama in December, 2016. Five local Native American tribes have ties to the region, which is replete with more than 100,000 historic and archeological sites which have been subject to looting over the decades.

The national monument status has become a source of contention; some see the act as protection of public lands from corporations who would scar the land drilling for oil, others see the designation as overreach by a Federal government incapable of anything but bureaucracy.

Several companies have sided with Bears Ears including Patagonia and REI. When the Outdoor Industry Association pulled its twice-a-year outdoor retailer show from Utah after 20 years, (estimated to bring $45 million to the state annually) it was in protest to the state’s conservative leadership’s desire to have the Bears Ears National Monument status scaled back or revoked. In June 2017, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke proposed scaling back the monument’s borders, and is currently aiming to reduce the boundaries of several other monuments across the West.

[UPDATE: On December 4, 2017, President Donald Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85%. He also shrank the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by 46%. This is cited as the biggest elimination of protected lands in American history.]

Wallace Stegner was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and historian who some called the Dean of Western Writers. He founded the creative writing program at Stanford University, where his long list of future luminaries included Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Stegner was also an outspoken advocate of America’s wild spaces, and was a governing council member of The Wilderness Society. Because of the scope and subject of his work, I’m one of many who argue that it’s difficult to truly understand the West — its people and its values — without being familiar with Wallace Stegner’s work.

Wallace Stegner, 1969

Known primarily for his novels (including Big Rock Candy Mountain, Crossing to Safety, and his Pulitzer-winning Angle of Repose), Stegner published a collection of environmental essays and letters titled The Sound of Mountain Water: The Changing American West. Although he never discussed Bears Ears specifically, and it would be presumptuous to speak on his behalf, his unique voice continues to offer advice and counsel more than two decades after his death.

The following are Stegner’s words, along with some personal commentary.

We all need wilderness.

In a letter to an outdoor commissioner, Stegner wrote about preseving a harsh, desert area near Capital Reef National Monument, not unlike Bears Ears.

“Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value…We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

The West thrives through cooperation.

“One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”

Throughout The Sound of Mountain Waters, Stegner challenges and refutes the myths and archetypes of the west: specifically, the rugged, individualist.

“The real people of the West are infrequently cowboys and never myths. They live in places like Denver and Salt Lake, Dillon and Boise, American Fork and American Falls, and they confront the real problems of real life in a real region, and have gone some distance toward understanding the conditions of western life and accepting the agencies that have been slowly created to meet them. But those who live by the myth, or pretend to, have never admitted that they live in a land of little rain and big consequences.”

Consider the current myths — let’s call them stereotypes — surrounding Bears Ears: The defeated Native American clinging to an ancestral home; the rugged rancher fighting Federal overreach. They reduce the narrative to easily digestible, but grossly erroneous sound bytes and platitudes. The “big consequences” of clinging to these stories, no matter how romantic or idealistic, are inviations to ignore the reality that land once exploited and altered cannot be reclaimed or restored.

The San Juan River running through Bears Ears

Some man-made damage is irrevocable.

Stegner laments the creation of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1966, which submerged Glen Canyon to create Lake Powell. Describing valleys and chasms, shrines and temples now decades underwater, Stegner articulates how extinction can happen to landscapes. On the loss of Glen Canyon he writes,

“In gaining the lovely and the usable, we have given up the incomparable.”

Unregulated industry yields short-term prosperity and long-term decay.

“The steel industry based upon Utah ore and limestone, and Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming coal is a first step on the road that led to Pittsburgh and Gary.”

Pittsburg and Gary have seen growth and prosperity because of their industry. Consequently, each has developed subsequent problems and stigma, which they work hard to overcome. And throughout their development neither had the added responsibility of preserving a clearly defined natural beauty or culture heritage.

“More mining I cannot say much good except that its operations are generally short-lived. The extractable wealth is taken and the shafts, the tailings, and the ruins left, and in a dry country such as the American West the wounds men make in the earth do not quickly heal.”

“Not many people are likely, and more, to look upon what we call ‘progress’ as an unmixed blessing. Just as surely as it has brought us increased comfort and more material goods, it has brought us spiritual losses, and it threatens now to become the Frankenstein that will destroy us.”

Sundial Face in Bears Ears

It’s okay to change your mind.

Stegner changed his mind on dams. In 1946, he wrote,

“Two days on Lake Mead, and an afternoon and evening going through the dam and the powerhouses, have made boosters of us.”

But compiling his essays for publication in 1969, he wrote,

“The euphoria of 1946 hardly lasts into 1969. In the years between, threats to put dams in Grand and Marble canyons have made us all reconsider the limits of legitimate reclamation.”

Stegner’s flexibility and open-mindedness surely came through dialogue and thought, not intransigence and partisanship.

Public lands must be preserved.

“The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there — important, that is, simply as idea.”

For more information on protecting Bears Ears National Monument, I recommend visiting Patagonia’s page. You can also voice your opinion to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on Twitter @SecretaryZinke or contacting your Representative.

[UPDATE: Following the Trump administration’s rollback of these national monuments, Patagonia demonstrated the significance with the maps below, taken from patagonia.com on December 5, 2017.]

Creative Director | Writer

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