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Monograph on Canyon Country roads wins Stegner literary prize

Published September 19, 2012 7:38 am

Jedediah Rogers argues conflict over wilderness roads rooted in Utah history.
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For his dissertation, historian Jedediah Rogers waded into one of the most contentious debates over land use in the West — the expansion of roads on the Colorado Plateau — and found a path straight back into Utah history.

"These conflicts have deep roots. They are endemic in history and culture," said Rogers, whose monograph helped him earn his doctorate at Arizona State University.

Now his study, "Make Straight in the Desert a Highway: Conflict in the Canyon Country," has garnered Rogers a new distinction: winner of the Wallace Stegner Prize in American Environmental or Western History, presented annually by the University of Utah Press.

The U. launched the prize in 2010 in memory of the revered Utah author, whose works of fiction and history detail the connections between land and community in the American West. It comes with a $10,000 award and the winning manuscript will be published under the University of Utah Press imprint.

The award recognizes "scholarly narrative history that also appeals to more general readers," the kind of writing Stegner championed in works, such as Beyond the Hundredth Meridian and Angle of Repose. The inaugural Stegner winner in 2010 was Frederick Swanson for "The Bitterroot and Mr. Brandborg: Clearcutting and the Struggle for Sustainable Forestry in the Northern Rockies."

A Brigham Young University graduate, Rogers grew up in Park City and is the grandson of retired Deseret News editor William Smart. He now works for Montana-based consultant Historical Research Associates, Inc. Rogers is slated to receive his award Thursday evening at Fort Douglas Post Theater, during the Utah State History Conference.

His title references the Old Testament's Isaiah 40:3-4, which sounds a call to carve a place for God in the wilderness and flatten uneven terrain. The study captures the historical ambivalence Utahns have felt toward Canyon Country's wilderness. Is it something to be conquered or cherished? Protected or exploited?

For some, roads embody progress, civilization and the right way to interact with an inhospitable landscape, Rogers said. Yet for others, roads negate wilderness and destroy what holds real value in Canyon Country — its isolation and scenic wonders.

These values have clashed for decades on the Colorado Plateau in a struggle that underpins the state of Utah's legislative quest to end federal control of public lands.

"Environmental conflict in the canyon country has been driven by ideologues who espouse one of these two deeply entrenched and seemingly irreconcilable perspectives," Rogers writes in an abstract of his 375-page manuscript. "Modern-day conflicts over wilderness, land use, and rural development are endemic, rooted in heritage and culture and driven by particular Anglo-American religious and secular beliefs that reflect differing ways of 'seeing' the land."

The study devotes considerable attention to Utah State Road 95's upgrade in the mid-1970s, from a dirt track between Blanding and Hanksville to a modern highway cutting across Comb Ridge. This section pairs Calvin Black, the San Juan County businessman who promoted the potential for extracting minerals from the plateau, against activist Edward Abbey, who drew on Black in creating the character Bishop Love in his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. The two iconic figures represent the polar extremes on the roads debate.

bmaffly@sltrib.com