To be a pioneer is to look forward. To do something or make something or go somewhere new.
To seek, or build, a better life, sometimes in a better place, always with better ideas.
It was true at Plymouth Rock, through the Cumberland Gap, with the sod-house homesteaders of Nebraska as well as with the This Is The Place arrival of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake Valley 174 years ago last Saturday.
The pioneer spirit is hardly unique to Utah. Other parts of the nation have their own superhero origin stories. It is altogether fitting and proper, as Mr. Lincoln said, that we remember the pioneers who came before, who laid the foundations for much of the civilization we enjoy and the communities we inhabit. To respect their hard work and sacrifice and learn what we can from their example.
But if we claim the heritage of pioneers, we should be about continuing their work. Not just to dress up like them for a day for parades and picnics, but also to be like them always in refusing to become complacent or resigned to the way things are, whether the status quo is intolerable or just improvable.
It is notable that, in Utah as in the rest of the Union, we don’t lavish all our adulation on the leaders. Our Pioneer Day is not just one big Brigham Young Look-Alike Contest. The American democratic spirit honors the farmers and railroad builders and lawmen and cattlemen and homesteading families.
The Utah image of the handcart pioneers, where people quite literally pulled their weight, is apt. Not because we lack a feeling of community and responsibility for one another, but because the responsibility to do the right thing is shared.
What that means today is citizens share the responsibility for making Utah a just and sustainable place. That we must push our political, business and religious leaders to do the right thing or, failing that, select new leaders. And use every tool in the kit — voting, activism, ballot initiatives — to guide policy in the right direction.
One opportunity that must not be squandered is the drawing new districts for members of the Utah Legislature and for our four members of the U.S. House of Representatives. It is our best chance to create a Legislature and a delegation that looks like all of us, ethnically and economically, rather than the executive committee of the Board of Realtors. All good citizens should keep a watchful eye on that process.
It is too late to, in Huckleberry Finn’s words, “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest.” We’re there, and the rest have caught up. To at once honor those who came before and respect those who will come after, we must approach everything we do with an eye to sustainability.
Room for improvement
That means moving, with all deliberate speed, to leave behind an economy that depends on finding, processing and burning fossil fuels and instead takes full advantage of Utah’s enormous potential for sustainable sources of energy — solar, wind and geothermal being the most promising.
The air along the Wasatch Front is cleaner than it used to be, but that is almost entirely due to federal standards for automobile efficiency and cleaner-burning motor fuels. It is time for Utahns to push their leaders to move out ahead of the feds, to view EPA standards as the floor, not the ceiling.
We need more real-time air-quality monitoring, like the effort announced the other day by Salt Lake County and the Utah Transit Authority. We need improved infrastructure for electric vehicles and tax structures that encourage, rather than penalize, those who buy and operate what are now more expensive electric cars and trucks. We need building codes that demand more energy-efficient homes and businesses.
We live in a desert, and we need to start acting like it. Gov. Spencer Cox, in his aw-shucks farmer persona, protests any move to take water away from agriculture. But it is the pressures of the marketplace, rather than any government action, that are likely to replace water-hogging crops like alfalfa with housing developments that, even with green lawns, use a lot less water.
It will be up to the rest of us, individually and collectively, to conserve water, even to reuse it, now and into a future that may or may not make our current drought conditions the new normal. It makes no sense to spend billions building huge pipelines or reservoirs to hoard water that isn’t going to be there.
One measure of our success — though it may turn out to be beyond our ability — will be whether the Great Salt Lake continues to shrink, drying out and exposing acres of land laden with toxic chemicals that the wind will carry across our towns and neighborhoods.
Bad decisions and selfish choices will have an impact on everyone who lives here. That makes it everyone’s business to follow the news, weigh the choices and make their voices heard.