Utah outdoor enthusiasts are mobilizing to drive state’s conservation policies

Desire to protect wilderness playgrounds has climbers, hunters, others voting with environment in mind.

For almost a decade, Emily Pitsch’s idea of political activism was submitting her ballot on election day. Then one day last year, she learned a gondola had been proposed as a solution to traffic congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon, potentially disfiguring one of her favorite playgrounds for trail running, climbing and skiing.

“I heard about it somewhere and then cried for like three days,” said Pitsch, 27, a fifth-year graduate student in biochemistry who chose to study at the University of Utah because of its proximity to the mountains.

“I just had this incredibly physical response. I was like, ‘I need to do something about this because I feel so passionately.’”

It’s not just the gondola that’s eliciting that kind of reaction. Snow turning to rain. Rivers and lakes drying up. Trails eroding. Construction vehicles digging. Air thickening with pollutants. As more people explore the outdoors, and as the areas in which they can play shrink, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for “outdoorists” to ignore the effects of government policies and climate change on their favorite recreational areas.

That seems to be motivating more people, like Pitsch, to take action, either by voting with environmental conservancy in mind or becoming politically involved in causes they feel strongly about. And the effort is coming from both sides of the aisle.

The shift has been particularly felt in Utah, which has turned the outdoor industry into one of its most powerful economic engines. Outdoor recreation contributes more than $6.4 billion to the state’s economy and employs more than 83,000, according to the state’s Office of Outdoor Recreation. Yet as more people are moving into the state and taking advantage of its recreational bounty, they are coming face to face with issues like the shrinking of the Great Salt Lake, increased risk of wildfires and the looting and defacement of its archeological treasures — issues that are the result of climate change or political policy, or both.

That puts Utah in a unique position, according to professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones, who founded the climate action nonprofit Protect Our Winters. Utah has, he said, the opportunity to become one of the first Republican-led states to lead the charge in terms of climate protection and environmental conservation.

“Our goal in Utah,” Jones said, “is to unify and educate the outdoor community in Utah that says, like, ‘We demand action on climate. And if you’re not going to do it, we’re going to find someone that does.’

“And in that sense, Utah can be an incredibly powerful state.”

(Protect Our Winters) Professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones started the nonprofit Protect Our Winters to encourage skiers, snowboarders and others who recreate outdoors to push for climate policies.

Historically, Republican policy has supported conservation. However, that posture has swung in the opposite direction over the past decade, with many party leaders favoring industry or denying that climate change is a problem or even exists.

“It shouldn’t be a political issue,” Jones said. “But it is.”

Perhaps the pendulum is beginning to swing back, though. Jones pointed out that Utah Rep. John Curtis was among the first conservative members of Congress to acknowledge climate change and advocate for action, a step he first took in 2019. Curtis has since formed the Conservative Climate Caucus, which also counts Utah congressmen Chris Stewart, Burgess Owens and Blake Moore among its members.

But finding a Republican who will vote for climate change policies is “like searching for unicorns,” Jones said, noting none of the state’s representatives voted in favor of the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes sweeping environmental initiatives. He said the challenge outdoor recreationists — what he calls “the outdoor state” — faces is to make leaders turn their pro-environment words into meaningful action.

There’s just one way to do that, he said: Through votes.

“The reality is, the Republicans never lost an election due to taking bad votes on climate,” Jones said. “And I think when that happens, that will change things really fast.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Rep. John Curtis leads climate scientists and constituents on a hike in Rock Canyon in Provo, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

To accelerate that shift, the legendary mountaineer made Salt Lake City one of his four stops last month on a tour to show his latest film, “Purple Mountains” — which has more shots of him trying to bridge the gap with climate deniers than of him sliding through narrow chutes on his snowboard. After the film, he pleaded with the approximately 60 people attending the event at the University of Utah to vote and to do so with the environment in mind.

Among the outdoor community, that’s actually a pretty novel concept.

In 2020, The Conservation Alliance — a coalition of companies committed to protecting wild places — conducted a poll of 1,000 self-identified outdoor recreationists. It revealed an overwhelming (91%) interest in a political candidate’s environmental stance and a strong appetite to vote compared to 2016. Despite that increased interest in civic duty, however, outdoor recreationists were 10% less likely than the general public to say they would “very likely” vote in the 2020 election — which included the presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. If that number held true, according to the poll, the voices of about 24.6 million outdoor enthusiasts would have been silenced.

Eric Babajanian, a 32-year-old snowboarder who attended the POW talk, said Jones’ message felt different from the get-out-the-vote efforts he saw when he was in college because it linked voting to issues he confronts every time he’s in the mountains.

(Protect Our Winters) Professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones shares the stage at the Marcia and John Price Museum with University of Utah snow hydrologist McKenzie Skiles as they talk about recreation, public policy and climate change during a Stoke the Vote event presented by the nonprofit Protect Our Winters on Oct. 18, 2022.

“I feel like those missions accomplish only so much,” Babajanian said. “But when you add something that’s very real, that affects our daily life and something you do for fun to it, that makes it a little bit more personal. It hits home a little bit.”

That’s what happened to Pitsch when she learned about the gondola.

The mountains are so stunning, and I feel like no other place in the world has such great access,” she said. “And I see a lot of people taking that for granted and it just upsets me. That’s kind of why I got involved.”

Pitsch found a kindred soul in Utah underclassman Claudia Wiese, a backcountry skier who said she felt similarly sick when she realized the Utah Department of Transportation’s gondola plan could become a reality. They banded together to form the student group Students for the Wasatch to raise opposition to the project.

They held their first meeting last December, expecting about 30 people to attend. Instead, closer to 70 showed up for the standing-room-only event.

“In that moment, we saw that there is a lot of interest, especially in students,” Wiese, 23, said. “And there isn’t really an outlet for them to kind of express their concern, specifically about the gondola, but I think about natural space in general.”

It’s a cause, Pitsch said, that speaks to a wide range of students with diverse political and recreational leanings.

Both the construction of the gondola and UDOT’s secondary plan of widening highway 210 to create a dedicated bus lane would have potential ramifications for the watershed that feeds much of the Salt Lake Valley. Still, Pitsch said the group’s leadership takes great pains to steer clear of being associated with climate advocacy because it remains such a political quagmire. Instead, Students for the Wasatch focuses on the economics and feasibility of the gondola project and how it would alter the complexion of the canyon.

“I think this issue is unique because it does cross political lines,” she said. “While I don’t think saving a beautiful canyon, watershed, and copious amounts of money should be political at all, that is not the reality of the situation, unfortunately.”

Maybe soon it won’t have to be. In addition to rallying attention to the gondola project, Students for the Wasatch helps members register to vote, runs letter-writing campaigns and allows some students the opportunity to speak to legislators. Once the gondola issue has met its end, Pitsch and Wiese envision the group continuing its political activism while advocating for other conservation measures.

“Voting is just the first step in being politically active,” Pitsch said. “And obviously it is important to contribute one’s opinion about who should be in office before complaining about who is in office.”

Because no matter what side of the aisle they filter in from, they can agree Utah is a pretty great playground. And if they voice that together, maybe policymakers will hear them.

If not, they can’t say they didn’t try.

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