The Ecologist: My grandfather and the Colorado Plateau shared the same harsh and uncompromising texture. Whether contemplating a rising sun atop a stolen horse recently gentled from running wild in Mesa Verde N.P., teaching me how to braid stampede strings from horse hair, or singing an opera aria he had learned in Belgium in World War I, his actions and words blended into the heartbeat and breathing of the landscape about. Aguelo–which means grandfather in the Judeau-Spanish we spoke–detested the plundering of resources, the ineptness of land managers, and the greed of developers and politicians who promoted the pillaging of rural economies and the unmitigated overuse and pollution of natural resources: grass, water, clean air.
He grazed cattle in the high pastures of the San Juan Mountains until the Forest Service fined him once too many times for not putting out enough cows! “Over-grazing is like pulling the principle out of your savings account to live large today without regard for the future,” he would say. “A blind man pisses in his cup by accident. We’re pissing in our own cup of coffee with our eyes wide open but shut to what’s going on around us” was how he described the denial practiced by other ranchers, townspeople, and politicians. I wonder what he would say today! The plundering has not diminished.
It was from this man that I learned the basics of ecology. His disdain about people who talked about change but did little to make it happen mentored my ideas about underground environmental activism. I am a man of contradictions, a man who feels uncomfortable without a broad-brimmed cowboy hat, a man who can’t balance his own checkbook but will spend everything he has to actively promote restoration of the Colorado Plateau.
It was from my grandfather that I learned to love this wild land where, breathless, I once looked down into a narrow canyon of the Colorado before it was flooded by Lake Powell and saw a blue heron balanced on one foot, a cutthroat trout hiding in the back water behind a boulder, and dared to drink untainted water from the creek from the same spot that elk and deer drank. ~A.J.
The Economist: A.J., if confronted, it would take me a while to figure out which end of a horse is the front. While my kids are seventh-generation Utahns, I grew up in the suburbs of California and Florida. My father was a Silicon Valley technology business guy, and our homes were variously on the coastal foothills of the southern Bay Area or on a boat canal on the east coast of southern Florida. The communities we lived in were bustling with wealth and commerce, but there was not much in the way of hay, horses, or red rock.
I came to Utah to go to the University of Utah in 1974. When I graduated from high school, I had lived in California with family friends after my parents moved back to Florida a year earlier. When the time came to apply for college, the state schools in California said I wasn’t a resident because my parents didn’t live there, and the Florida schools said I wasn’t a resident because I didn’t live there. So I got out a map and put 50 mile circles around the good engineering schools, my interest at the time, and chose the one with the most ski resorts in the circle. Except for one year, when I worked for Intel Corp., back in Silicon Valley again, I have lived in Utah ever since, the place I came to because of its extraordinary out-of-doors, and loved it here.
Before my folks moved back to Florida in the ‘70’s we had a second home, a small cabin, near Donner Summit in the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada. I loved going up there on the weekends and getting outside, tromping around on foot and motorcycle in the summer and skiing and snowmobiling in the winter. Once again, A.J., no horses involved. As I was raising my own young family in Salt Lake City, and building a business in investment management, I looked around for something of the same within 200 miles or so of Salt Lake. I settled on Torrey, Utah, a place I had first seen driving over newly paved Highway 12 with my father after a few days of 4-wheeling and dark sky hunting. I’m not sure if it is true exactly that I heard the angels sing as we overlooked the Fremont River Valley, but it makes a good story, and it was, and still is, an inspiring sight to me.
My Anglo roots (in Utah “root” rhymes with “foot”) go all the way back to the notorious Edward Martin Handcart Company which got stranded in early snows while pushing and pulling handcarts to Utah. The Baileys, a poverty stricken family from England, settled in Nephi, Utah, after having to be rescued at Martin’s Cove in Wyoming in 1856. In Capitol Reef National Park, near my home in Torrey, the Floral Ranch was homesteaded by Ephraim Hanks in 1881. Hanks was one of the first rescuers to make it to Martin’s Cove from Salt Lake that harsh early winter in ‘56. It’s a connection I appreciate: without his rescue it is likely I would not exist.
Today, hiking around Torrey on the 11,000 foot high Aquarius and Fish Lake Plateaus, I am always struck hard by how the drought stricken mountains are being cow munched into molehills. Looking down into the valleys below I am equally disturbed by how the irrigation sprinklers are always on, emptying the Fremont River onto fields of hay and alfalfa to make more feed for those cows. With my roots, I’m aware of the Mormon ethic of hard work and land-development-as-stewardship with its ensuing perspective that if the grass isn’t eaten or if water is left in the stream, they are wasted and that those who waste God’s generous gifts will be held accountable for their squander. In fact, that perspective is now the law of the land in the West – if a rancher or farmer doesn’t graze the grass on the public lands or use the water, his rights are taken away and given to someone else who will. At the same time, living in Torrey, I’m also aware that all of the small, theocratically founded hay towns on the Plateau are economically poor, with most folks living in or near poverty. The businessman economist in me thinks there is a better way.
Yes, there’s a lot to talk about. I’m looking forward to the conversation. ~Mark