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Photos: Celebrating 50 years of Utah wilderness

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(Courtesy | Nilauro Markus) Stansbury Island Evaporation Ponds.

Bill Rau likes to visit a spot in Utah’s Book Cliffs. He doesn’t want you to know where it is, but he sure wants you to know how beautiful and wild it is.

The place north of Interstate 70 is the subject of his black and white photograph “Storm’s Light,” which is among 50 images selected for a juried exhibit to open Wednesday at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

The show, Utah Wilderness 50, commemorates the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Wilderness Act into law. The legislation, written by Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society, established the National Wilderness Preservation System, which recognizes wilderness as “an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

“We are focusing on the diversity and richness of wilderness in Utah,” said museum exhibit designer Tim Lee, who moderated the jury.

Lee aimed to feature images representing all three of Utah’s geographic regions — the Rocky Mountains, the Basin Range and the Colorado Plateau — arranged so they “blend seamlessly together” in the museum’s retrofitted Sky Gallery on the top floor.

The jury studied 1,500 images from several hundred photographers, who were limited to five submissions each.

“We went for the 50 strongest, but we didn’t want 10 from the same spot on the Great Salt Lake,” said juror Stephen Trimble, a Salt Lake City author. “We made a rule that we would pick only one picture from the same photographer.”

The judging panel included wildlife photographer Rosalie Winard and landscape photographers Tom Till and James Kay.

While the exhibit commemorates the wilderness legislation, it is not limited to lands that have been designated as wilderness — currently totaling about 1 million acres in Utah, mostly in alpine areas in national forests and covering two percent of the state.

Wilderness designations have become one of Utah’s most divisive political issues. About 154,350 acres of desert terrain overseen by the Bureau of Land Management have been designated, although the agency manages 3 million acres as wilderness study areas.

Advocates are hoping to see far more land protected, while opponents argue not one more acre should be “locked up.”

“The show includes any federal lands that had the feeling of wilderness, no roads, no structures. This is more a celebration than a piece of political advocacy,” Trimble said.

“I was impressed we got pictures from people shooting in places they loved,” he said. “Lots of the places will be familiar and that’s OK. Those are the places that are icons. Those are the places that convert people and motivate them to seek out those more remote places.”

Rau shot his Book Cliffs photo last fall while thunderclouds, pregnant with monsoonal precipitation, passed overhead, throwing the canyons and mesas in and out of shadow.

“It epitomizes southeast Utah with that sense of being wilderness even though it’s not designated wilderness,” Rau said. “You really have to be determined to go there. Not many people from this part of Utah [Grand County] go there.”

Despite the presence of cows, uranium deposits, potash ponds and drill rigs, the Book Cliffs and the canyon country to the south still have many untrammeled wonders worth saving, he said.

“There is nowhere in the world equal to southeast Utah in terms of landscapes and ability to get out in wild areas and feel like maybe you’re the first person who has ever been there. That’s how I feel when I visit the Book Cliffs,” he said.

“That’s a highly emotional feeling. You can feel the essence of the land coming up through your body and you feel like a more whole person.”

bmaffly@sltrib.com

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