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Peg McEntee: Grass-roots Mormons preach Earth-friendly gospel

Published May 17, 2013 12:46 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Just a few months ago, the Legislature repeated its demand that the federal government surrender 30 million acres of public lands to Utah so the state can make more money on them.

That's just the sort of thinking that the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance (MESA) deplores, and why it wants its followers — more than 1,300 in more than 15 countries — to remember LDS teachings to revere the Earth, its sanctity, its people and the need to preserve it for generations to come.

And, given that Mormons make up most of Utah's population and hold a supermajority in the Legislature and the state's administration, MESA wants all Utahns to insist on a clean, healthy environment.

"It's the dominant culture here," says Ty Markham, a Torrey rancher, former legislative candidate and now a registered lobbyist who spends part of the year in Salt Lake City.

"We really want to change — in Utah, in particular — how our environment is being managed and preserved in the positive sense of clean air, clean water, all of that," she says. "We really need to mobilize our culture, our people."

It makes sense. The LDS community is known for its reactions to disasters big and small. It seems natural, given our environmental circumstances, that Latter-day Saints should take up the e-cause with every bit of their well-honed communication and organization.

No one along the Wasatch Front and in too many other parts of Utah can deny our air is fouled, summer and winter, even in rural and remote areas. Extraction industries create their own threats to the environment and cherished public lands and waters. Utah's first coal strip mine, and its proposed expansion, threaten the crystalline air at Bryce Canyon National Park as well as residents along Highway 89 who hear coal trucks roar by every day. In northern Salt Lake City and North Salt Lake, oil refineries belch pungent pollutants.

Much of MESA's philosophy centers on the teachings of the faith's founder, Joseph Smith, and his successor, Brigham Young.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, Smith wrote, "For, behold, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance.

"But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. And wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need."

Even institutionally, the Utah-based LDS Church is building more and more "green" meetinghouses, including a Farmington stake center that sports solar panels, xeriscaped landscaping and designated parking for electric cars.

For Utah anthropologist Charles Nuckolls, there is no "ownership or endowment to act only in respect to one's interest. We are instructed by scripture to hold the Earth sacred … and to hold it in trust to the divine being who created it. That's everything, not just animals and plants, but people."

That's apparent in MESA's organizational plan, Nuckolls says. It's a grass-roots movement with no hierarchy or leadership and just a few bylaws. Heck, it is not even limited to Mormons.

MESA does owe a debt to environmental groups such as Peaceful Uprising, Utah Tar Sands Resistance and a host of other Utah environmental movements.

"They're pulling us along; they're carrying the weight," Nuckolls says. "We feel it is time for the majority to carry our own weight."

That shouldn't be a problem. Markham gave me a stack of papers with thoughts, actions, events and plans that bespeak the Mormon faith's diligent planning and record-keeping.

The LDS Church, however, has given "no explicit guidance or examples … as to how we should behave or act" in regard to its teachings on being civic-minded, politically active and stewards of the environment, Markham says. "We are left to decide for ourselves."

As for those Utah politicians who actually believe in hairbrained ideas like seizing all those federal lands?

"They will be swept from office by a growing movement," Nuckolls says. "They will follow us. We will not follow them."

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @Peg McEntee.