Wharton: A fat man's defense of wilderness
I am 60 years old, overweight, have a bad ankle, spent over 21 years serving my country in the Utah National Guard and can use my wife's high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle any time I'm in the mood for an adventure.
Those bits of information should make me a prime candidate to hate wilderness designation in Utah. Since hiking or riding a horse into roadless country isn't a viable option for me these days, don't I have as much right to enjoy public lands as a young backpacker? Why can't I drive the family Jeep anywhere I want or purchase an all-terrain vehicle to explore Utah's spectacular redrock country? Isn't that blatant discrimination?
The reality is far different. I don't know how many acres of Bureau of Land Management property in Utah should be set aside as wilderness. But my gut tells me there should be plenty.
Part of this comes from perspective. When I was younger, I climbed most of the highest peaks in the Wasatch, many in federally designated wilderness areas. I backpacked into the Uintas, once reaching the top of Kings Peak, Utah's highest point. I enjoyed all-day hikes into incredible slot canyons too beautiful to describe. I've walked long distances to see a remote arch, slept in lonely canyons and waded through ice-cold streams.
Even though I am currently incapable of taking some of the long treks into these wild places, memories of those adventures make me smile with pleasure whenever I drive near a trailhead or stare up at a mountain peak.
As a four-wheel-drive enthusiast, I know there are hundreds of miles of roads throughout the state to explore. These tracks can take me across the Skyline Drive, over Elephant Hill, to Gemini Bridges or to hard-to-reach Boulder Mountain lakes.
On a Jeep trip to the Maze last spring, I drove well over 100 miles on the Flint Trail and, save for the bumpy road, saw little or no signs of humans. Being able to look out over massive amounts of roadless country in this day and age is a thrill.
I was enjoying it in a vehicle and no one was denying me that right. I know what's down those canyons because I have backpacked there and I'm not so selfish that I would deny others the chance to hike in a place away from motors. I learned to share at a young age and don't mind doing that now.
Sharing makes for the second part of arguing that we should set aside as much wilderness as possible.
Most politicians and business people look at short-term gains, too often ignoring the long-term consequences of their actions.
I get it that there is oil, gas, coal and other valuable resources buried under some of these public lands and that towns such as Vernal, Roosevelt, Duchesne and Price rely heavily on their extraction for jobs. We do need cheap energy. There are still southern Utah residents angry about the designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument because it "locked up" millions of tons of Kaiparowits Plateau coal.
Yet, what's wrong with setting aside some of these resources for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren who might need them sometime in the future? Why can't wilderness be used as a sort of "land bank" where those who come after us are left with some resources?
Have we become so selfish and so greedy that we have to have everything right now, as cheap as possible, no matter the cost to the environment and to those who follow us? Can't we choose to share not only the beauty of Utah's wild places but their bounty with future generations?
I might be a fat, aging man. But I still think it's a good idea to set aside as much wilderness as possible.
Tom Wharton is an outdoors and travel columnist. Reach him at email@example.com or 801-257-8909.
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