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Op-ed: 25 years later, Edward Abbey wouldn’t recognize Utah wilderness

By Jim Stiles

First Published Mar 14 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Mar 14 2014 01:01 am

It’s been a half century since Edward Abbey first wrote about wilderness. He once suggested, "We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it."

In "Desert Solitaire," Abbey also offered this unique proposal: "The wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday ... as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. The Grand Canyon … may be required to function as a base for guerrilla warfare against tyranny."

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Whether the revolutionary guerrillas could find common ground with BASE jumpers, mountain bikes and Corona Arch swingers is debatable. The "excessive industrialism" he feared has been more insidious than even he imagined, despite his own early warnings about "industrial tourism." His notion of wilderness would perplex most 21st century wilderness advocates who insist that its commercial exploitation via a "tourist/amenities" economy will generate untold revenues for the rural West.

It is certain that, 25 years after Abbey left us, saving wilderness for its solitude, remoteness, and as a base camp for revolutionary warfare, is not high on anyone’s agenda.

One evening, before he left Moab, Abbey and I had dinner at the old Sundowner. We ordered a red wine and big Porter House steaks and talked about Moab’s future. Recently, uranium prices had plummeted and the nearby Atlas Mill was shutting down. What would happen to Moab next? Neither of us had a clue.

The wine came. But the waitress had placed the bottle in a bucket of ice cubes. Quietly he moaned, "For Christ’s sake, typical Moab. Don’t they know you don’t chill a red?" As we sipped our icy drinks, Abbey softened, "I can live with an icy red. But leave our canyons alone, eh, Stiles?"

Barely a year before he died, Abbey spent his last summer in Moab. I took him to the Sand Flats one day to see the re-discovered "Slickrock Bike Trail." Moab was on the verge of being transformed into the "Mountain Bicycle Capital of the World." But Ed, at first, came to the bikers’ defense.

"I like bikes," he complained. "You’re more negative than I am!"

"Well," I defended myself. "Have a look first."

We drove his old Ford truck up the switchbacks above town and saw the hordes of pedaling recreationists who had made the Moab pilgrimage. We watched the crowds overflow the parking lot as the bikes fanned out, like a thousand spiders, over the vast sandstone expanse; Abbey noted some of the cars and license plates — lots of BMWs and Saabs and Audis. Many California plates … Marin County.

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Ed shook his head. "I had no idea." And he flashed back to our conversation of almost a decade earlier.

"One thing’s for certain, " Ed sighed. "When these people drink a red, they’ll know not to chill it."

Abbey’s last glimpse of the slickrock was our first glance of a future we never imagined. When Ed said, "What our perishing republic needs is something different ... something entirely different," I don’t think this is the future he had in mind.

Twenty-five years after his death, Abbey’s wilderness has lost some of its poetry; it was, in fact, Cactus Ed who once swore that the movement "needed more poets and fewer lawyers." Today, the canyon country is fought over by two opposing forces — one wants to exploit its energy resources; the other half wants to exploit its beauty for tourism dollars. Now Abbey’s option — just leave it like it was — is but a quaint reminder of a time that never existed.

Jim Stiles is founder and publisher of The Canyon Country Zephyr. The Zephyr’s first issue was printed on the day Edward Abbey died, and Abbey’s last original story appeared in that premier issue.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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