Commentary: Reclaiming Utah’s place as the ‘Center of Scenic America’

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and his wife, Kate Kopischke, seen here on 600 South in Salt Lake City on Oct. 26, 2018, have started a local affiliate of Scenic America to press for more regulation and less proliferation of billboards. “Here we have the most prominent gateway into our city coming in on 6th South," Becker said. "It is lined all the way into the city with billboards. It detracts from what would otherwise be a beautiful gateway into Salt Lake.” He calls the towering rows of signs an "embarrassing blight.”

Had you been traveling the United States in 1940 and opted to visit Utah, it’s likely you were drawn here by the promotional campaign touting Utah as the “Center of Scenic America.” The slogan was widely used by Utah and Salt Lake City tourism officials from the 1920s through the 1940s, even appearing for several years on the state’s license plates.

Those who live here, and the millions who visit each year, experience the power of that claim. From the majestic redrock canyons to the snow-capped peaks of our stunning mountain ranges, Utah is home to some of America’s most spectacular vistas. These scenic wonders are drawing increasing numbers of residents and visitors from around the world, driving a lucrative tourism economy and challenging state and local governments’ ability to manage growth and simultaneously maintain the unique scenic character of our communities and landscapes.

Years of research and polling show that scenic beauty, outdoor recreation opportunities and aesthetically pleasing cities and towns are key reasons for Utah’s exponential population growth. Recent arrivals include millennials, active retirees and other professionals seeking a healthy lifestyle and a place to live and work that offers scenic character and surroundings.

Yet ever since the slogan was retired in the 1940s, Utah’s spot as the “Center of Scenic America” has been increasingly threatened. Like everywhere across America, the postwar period in Utah brought subdivisions and commuting-to-work conditions. Roads and highways multiplied across the state, along with factories, automobiles, spider webs of overhead utility lines, and billboards — lots and lots of billboards!

Today, billboards are obstructing many of Utah’s awe-inspiring viewsheds and cluttering our urban landscapes. The growing number of brightly lit signs and electronic billboards are diminishing traffic safety and dimming Utah’s dark sky communities and corridors. These zones protect stretches of dark, desert sky for astronomers, researchers, nocturnal animal species, defense systems, and stargazers who draw inspiration and awe from our celestial night skies.

The cumulative impact of 80 years of infrastructure development — and public indifference to the associated visual blight — has become abundantly clear.

The good news is that public opinion is changing. More and more citizens are raising their voices in support of uncluttered viewsheds, local control over the visual character of their communities, and holding visual polluters to account.

To amplify the voices of Utahns concerned about our deteriorating rural and urban vistas, we launched Scenic Utah, an organization focused on preserving our unparalleled scenery and reclaiming our rightful spot as the “Center of Scenic America.”

Scenic Utah is the 50th state affiliate of Scenic America, the only national organization working to preserve and enhance the country’s visual environment. Our goals include partnering with public and nonprofit organizations who share our commitment to protecting the visual character of Utah’s scenic byways, dark skies, public lands, and gateway corridors and communities; and advocating for the right of local communities to control their visual environments.

Our recent kickoff events in Salt Lake City included a gala celebration at the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, followed by a daylong Scenic Symposium, convened jointly by Scenic America and Scenic Utah and attended by Utahns and representatives of a dozen other Scenic America affiliates from around the country. Speakers from across Utah and the U.S. were advocates and experts in historic preservation, planning and land use, scenic byways, dark skies, public lands, gateway corridors and billboard and sign control. Key take-aways included strategies and best practices in advocating for scenic preservation, legislative and policy issues to consider, and ideas for mobilizing partnerships and coalitions to engage in this “scenic preservation” movement.

The powerful billboard lobby is already devising ways to undermine Scenic Utah. But the overwhelming response to our launch has been highly encouraging. Hundreds of Utahns have responded to surveys, social media outreach, and media reports about Scenic Utah’s mission and purpose — expressing gratitude, offers of assistance, and requests for help and advice in challenging the outdoor advertising industry. They support scenic beauty in Utah, and they want to know how to protect and enhance it.

We look forward to building a coalition of citizens who care about the way our state looks, maintaining our rich scenic heritage, and eliminating public tolerance of visual blight. We welcome all Utahns to join our effort to restore Utah’s status as the true “Center of Scenic America.”

Ralph Becker

Ralph Becker, former Salt Lake City mayor, is chair of Scenic Utah and a member of the national board of Scenic America.

Ryke Longest

Ryke Longest is chair of the board of Scenic America and founding director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at the Duke University School of Law.