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Ken Sleight, an inspiration for ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang,’ loses personal archive in Utah wildfire

The fire, started by an unattended campfire, also destroyed four homes and thousands of acres of forest.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) The remains of Ken Sleight's office and archives after they were destroyed by the Pack Creek Fire. June 14, 2021.

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Moab There are many titles that could accurately describe Ken Sleight’s life and work over the past 91 years: environmental activist, legendary river guide, political organizer, and close friend to the writer Edward Abbey. But he has also consistently and quietly played another role: historian.

For over three quarters of a century, Sleight kept careful archives documenting his transformation from a young, conservative tire salesman in northern Utah (a veteran of the Korean War who once attended John Birch Society meetings) to an environmental firebrand who fought relentlessly against nuclear waste dumps in San Juan County, the clearing of old growth piñon-juniper forests and — most famously — for the removal of the Glen Canyon Dam.

Sleight’s activism and upbringing in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided the inspiration for the “Jack Mormon” character of Seldom Seen Smith in “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” Abbey’s 1975 comic novel of eco-sabatoge.

Outside his home at Pack Creek Ranch south of Moab, Sleight had a large, two-story Quonset hut where he kept his office, workshop and around 100 boxes of archived material, including decades of correspondence, participant lists for the countless backcountry trips he guided, and documents related to numerous environmental battles.

“I had oodles and oodles and oodles of records,” Sleight said in an interview at his home on Monday. “It was all in one place, the records, everything.”

The entire contents of the building burned last week as the Pack Creek Fire swept up an irrigation ditch at the ranch before spreading high into the La Sal Mountains.

“All those memories,” he said, “went up in smoke.”

The tearful historian

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Environmental activist and river runner Ken Sleight's file cabinet melted in the Pack Creek Fire, which destroyed around 100 boxes of archived records. June 14, 2021.

As of Tuesday, the fire, which started June 9 from an unattended campfire, had consumed 8,500 acres of forest. It is just 16% contained.

Not a scrap of paper from Sleight’s boxes survived the blaze. Metal filing cabinets melted in the heat and the roof of the steel hut warped. The lettering was peeling from road signs in the ranch named after Abbey’s work — Desert Solitaire, Seldom Seen, Abbey Road — and great swaths of trees were burned. Four homes in Pack Creek Ranch were destroyed, and five others were damaged. Six outbuildings, including Sleight’s hut, were lost, according to Utah Wildfire Info.

Sleight’s nearby home and the rental cabins scattered throughout the ranch, which he bought with his wife, Jane, in the mid-1980s, were spared from the fire. But the loss of other homes in the neighborhood and the historical material that Sleight hoped to use for a book project and to donate to a university archives is devastating.

“I know a number of historians all over the state,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. “I want to be a historian. I like to collect things, as my friends all know.”

“In my mind,” said Ryann Savino, a river guide, archivist and writer, “Ken probably had one of the most, if not the most, extensive archives” related to campaigns such as the fight to preserve Rainbow Bridge from the floodwaters of Lake Powell. Savino has been friends with Sleight since 2014 and has been assisting him with his book project. “He totally is a historian,” she said.

(Photo by H. Bennett. Courtesy of Ken Sleight.) Ken Sleight making breakfast along the river in Glen Canyon before the dam, circa June 1960.

‘I can’t imagine Ken’s loss’

In 2018, Savino, Sleight and Martha Ham put together an exhibit for the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah. It showcased a trip Sleight took down the Colorado River through Glen Canyon in 1959, four years before Lake Powell — or as he sometimes refers to it, “Lake Foul” — began to fill, inundating the canyon.

Some of the records used for that project and others were moved to Sleight’s basement several years ago and survived the fire. But so much was lost, including records from his work as chair of the San Juan County Democrats in the 1990s, when he worked with Mark Maryboy, the county’s first Native American commissioner, to run a slate of Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute candidates for every public office in the county.

“Those who lost their houses are [experiencing] unbelievable pain and devastation,” said Pack Creek resident ML Lincoln, the director of the 2013 documentary “Wrenched” and editor of the follow-up book “Wrenched from the Land: Activists Inspired by Edward Abbey,” both of which feature interviews with Sleight.

“I can’t imagine Ken’s loss,” she continued. “Whether it was working for different companies, whether it was finally having his own river-running company, whether it was being an activist and his connections and friends within the environmental community, Ken had logs, he had records, he had letters, photographs. … It was a physical, emotional, literal tie to his life.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jane Sleight, 77, looks out from her back porch in Pack Creek Ranch at the damage caused by the Pack Creek Fire. June 14, 2021.

The residents of Pack Creek Ranch were evacuated soon after the fire started. Sleight fell and bruised his face while releasing his goats from their pen, and he spent several days with Jane in a hotel in Moab. They didn’t learn about the loss of the archives until they were allowed to return to their property over the weekend.

The hut was next to an irrigation pond that Sleight feels could have been an instrumental part of the firefighting effort, but he says his advice to authorities went unheeded in the early chaos of the fire. Days later, Sleight filled the pond, and water from it was used by helicopters fighting the blaze in the mountains.

“We could have done something,” Sleight insisted. “God gave us a couple green trees to look out at still, but I’m critical. I’m pissed.”

‘They’re here to party’

Lincoln hopes the fire will serve as a wake-up call regarding overvisitation to the Moab area, and a flagrant disregard for regulations restricting camping to designated areas on Bureau of Land Management turf and in the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

“People are coming to Moab and leaving their minds at their homes,” she said, noting that “no camping” signs in the national forest are routinely vandalized or removed. “They act as if they don’t know what is going on and they might not. They’re here to party. They’re here to camp. They’re here to bike, to shoot, to hunt bears. They’re here to ATV, to jeep and bicycle, whatever it is. How do you teach people to have respect for the place where they’re doing these activities?”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Pack Creek Fire started on June 9 from an unattended campfire and burned over 8,000 acres in the first week. June 14, 2021.

On Tuesday, Savino had helped locate eight of the 12 goats in Sleight’s herd, and she found their chickens, which had taken up roost under a camper trailer. She hopes that when the smoke plumes fade, the few boxes of archived material in the basement will one day serve as a small consolation.

Jane Sleight, who has been married to Ken since 1983, said she hopes his acquaintances from the river-running days can meet up soon to record some of their many memories.

“We need to get a bunch of the old river runners together,” she said, “and just sit around and tell stories. We’d get so much stuff.”

Note: Investigators are still seeking leads that may help identify those responsible for the fire’s start. Anyone who may have information about the start of the Pack Creek Fire can call the tip line at 775-355-5337.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

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