Full thesis


Personal Context

Why is this so hard to write? Perhaps it is the lessening snowpack, a personally frustrating side effect of climate change. Maybe it is the amount of screen time I have had to subject myself to. It is also probably because the issues that I am trying to “solve” here, in this thesis, are unequivocally unsolvable in my essay; polarization and angry rhetoric has created a barrier around the conversation I want to have. I am standing on the shoulders of giants and shouting into a hot, empty atmosphere. The reality of the “solution” is much bigger than an essay or video. Regardless, I care about the future of this place, so I grapple with the histories and the difficulty. And I hope that these components I have created will help in some way.

The hardest part though, is certainly addressing my own split stance on the issue. Surely the values that we hold closest are the ones that we are the most likely to have internal conflicts with. I grew up skiing runs accessed by chairlifts, I love the community and the experience that  it provided me with. I moved to Utah for the promise of the West, for the big mountains, for powder. Skiing, and the industry it sustains, lured me thousands of miles away from my home here to the barren, sandy, and vast Great Basin. A land which I have fallen in love with over years of getting to know it. I moved out to ski, and I stayed for the wide open country. I have stayed to learn about and address the massive flaws in the human / nature interaction, specifically in the very industry that I am inextricably a part of. Utah is an inspiring and exciting place to address these problems.

To understand these issues I have decided to look at the history of the Wasatch Mountains, the management strategies and ideologies that have been upheld, and what is being done to move to a sustainable future. This essay will investigate those components and hopefully gain a deeper understanding of how Utahn’s value land in the West. The essays that follow are embedded with personal experience because it is clear that all of this work is connected to my activity in the place. For me, it was a long hike into advocacy.

My words can act as a guide to others like me. Skiers young and old can engage the hard work of environmental activism on many levels. It can take a long time to get to a place where we feel comfortable doing so. Perhaps these essays can help those that want to get involved understand their own position in the effort. I realize that these balances and tensions are difficult to grapple with but our interaction with wilderness and wildness does have an impact and it is important to address it in whatever way we can.

For now, on this weekend in late March, I internalize these insecurities and decide to point my own focus to a place that will fit the mixture of comfort and discomfort: the wild. Sublime nature. I begin this essay as I would begin anything, with a walk in the woods.


I decided to get into the Little Cottonwood backcountry. Contrasted with much of the off-piste skiing in the Wasatch, the area I chose feels more wild because of its remoteness. It is quintessential high country. From the city and road it looks unapproachable. It is abstracted in steep pitches and jagged peaks. The fuzzy blur of trees cling to the wall of toothy mountains.This is contrasted with a large majority of other Wasatch terrain that is either lift accessed or a quick tour from the road. I didn’t want it to be easy. I wanted to know those distant away sights, trees, rocks, and snow. The wilderness area a couple miles south of the road is known as the “Lone Peak Wilderness” but from the trailhead one can access four distinct drainages, each of which I wanted to explore. I knew there were paths to the high places.

The trip began as many do with a last minute stop at Wal-Mart. I exited my van in the South-Towne-sprawl headed toward the door of the superstore. A raven sat on top of a light-pole and squawked at me. As the automated glass slid open I grabbed an oversized cart and listened to the bird’s continued cries. The doors closed behind me and I embarked on the first of many exhausting walks of the weekend. It was St. Patrick’s Day.

Inside I found all the calories and last minute supplies I would need for the coming days. Apples, beans, canned herring, black tea, a wrist watch. I moved quickly through the isles of DVDs, shampoo, food, tires and toilet paper. I saw families: a girl with a short dad and a tall mom, two punks with skateboards and pimples and leather coats, and I heard a young woman with long dark wavy hair ask her sweat-panted boyfriend if Wal-Mart had green cookies. I paid for my pitiful cart of goods and exited the store.

The raven was gone.


I unloaded all of my gear into the White Pine trailhead parking lot. I stuffed my recent goods into my bags and shouldered them: the larger, on my back, and the smaller slung across my front. I was laden with weight and became exhausted just putting my skis on next to the porta-pottie. Folks in the parking lot laughed as I awkwardly took my first skin steps. I slid down a small slope and started walking across the bridge over Little Cottonwood creek. The snow was so high that I was parallel with the handrail. I was unbalanced with the weight around my shoulders and I could have easily toppled into the bubbling stream. I pushed this and moved onward. I began a long hot hike up into the woods.

I passed brown U.S.F.S. signs, first at the trail head, and again along the way. The Forest Service offers rules that govern the mountains. The signs are similar to those all over the country, brown and wooden, etched with information and regulations. These showed simple maps, identified different land destinations, told me where I could or couldn’t have a fire. They come from a long and fraught relationship with the land. I took the signs, as I always do, as a reminder that this is a “land of many uses.” I would soon pass into the area that was designated as “wilderness” which I knew had the highest protection from human utility.

As I rounded that corner into the Lone Peak Wilderness, I looked down into the city. The view down Little is a brilliant sight and one that is often used to promote the Wasatch. At the bottom of the steep and wide granite walls of the canyon, the city is cradled. In this giant “U,” one can see history of the geography through the glacier’s path as well as the road the miners took. The city then stretches from the bottom of the canyon out to the Oquirrhs which creates the edge of the Valley and the beginning of the Great Basin. It beckons the imagination with the grandness of the West and the dream of freedom. This is seared into my mind as an ode to the mountains I love and their closeness to my home in the city.

I looked down onto the concrete snake, the canyon road. I set my bags down and popped a seat in the snow. I needed a drink. The sun was still high overhead but I could imagine the pink and gold sky that it would create in a few hours. I couldn’t wait for sunset. I had to pitch my tent before dark and I still had far to travel. It was going to be cold, and I was already beat from my haul. As I sipped water and looked out over the city, I thought more about my place in the West. How had I come here? Why did I have the privilege of terrific access to a wild environment? What did all of those signs I saw on the way to my repose really mean, what foresight did they hold? What would my future children see from this same view?

There is no simple answer to these questions. So in order to understand the future I begin with history, and how it shapes perspective…


A Brief Background

The root of the problem

In the first chapters of Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash weaves a tale of exploitation and fear surrounding wild-lands. He argues that the early Euro-American settlers saw wilderness as an entity to be conquered by man. At that point in time it was not simply about using the land, it was that “they battled wild country not only for personal survival but in the name of nation, race, and God.” The first settlers saw the native people and place of America as suffering from what they called the “wilderness condition.” To the settlers this was a disease that needed to be cured. It became the goal of the settlers to tame the wilds.

The taming of this wilderness condition came in the form of many industries and movements. Through felling timber and the decimation of Native Americans, our ancestors moved west. As Nash tells readers, this vendetta was exacerbated by the Bible and their perception of what the wilderness held. The early settlers had never experienced such a terrific denseness; their only understanding of it was that it was evil. They, armed with their beliefs and an axe, had to turn this unkempt and sinful place into a “garden.” This was the reality of the pastoral Europe they had come from and it was what their truths held in accordance with their Biblical teachings. To them, it was a great task to turn this land into a “civilized” world.

Over the course of colonial American history onward, the Christian Europeans and their descendants succeeded in this task. From settling the East and eradicating the Indians, they moved West and manifested their destiny. While the Bible may have set up the bedrock for this vendetta, by the 1800’s the driver became industry and economy. Settlers found forests to turn into buildings and mountains into mines. Over 500 years, they changed the continent. Once all of the old growth and many of the peoples that once lived here were gone, extractive land practice became the norm and replaced the ideologies of the indigenous peoples’ more holistic relationship to the land. More recently, through the extraction of fossil fuels and wasteful management of other minerals, the country’s policy makers have continued to develop and destroy many elements of the natural world. The track that the original settlers started is continued in current generations. This essay will explore that relationship and work to understand what is being done to counter this pervasive and outdated mentality.

Eileen Crist writes “With respect to Western civilization —now dominating human affairs — from classic antiquity, through Judeo-Christian theology, to dominant strands of modern scientific and political thought, its intellectual canon and legacy have been overwhelmingly anthropocentric.” She goes on to tell us that this mentality has created the myth that humans are godlike in their interaction with lands. We have “orchestrated and legitimated a plundering human behavior toward the natural world.” It is the point of this essay in observing the history of Western use of land that this mindset is still very much alive especially here in Utah. These structures have lead to huge ecological and ethical damage to the natural world. 

The Wasatch Mountains are an excellent microcosm of the country’s sordid past concerning wilderness, landscape and European perception of both. This essay will work to understand why environmentally harmful human influence is upheld in the natural and wild places and what is being done to change that narrative to a more holistic future. Nash and Crist both show that the historical understanding of Western connection to nature is no longer the way forward. The perpetuation of the tourism industry and privatized development much shift as to help and create a more progressive future of environmental ethics and stewardship.   

Countering the negative

While it is true that Westerners created civilization through the destruction of wilderness, more enlightened thought and ideologies began to present themselves a hundred years after the European settlement of America. It is ironic and necessary to first address the reason for these counter movements. The early settlers “tamed” nature and built a civilization as they saw fit from their Euro-Christian perspective. From their position in the “tame” world, individuals began to move away from their forefathers’ ideologies. Movements such as the Romantics and Primitivists blossomed. They needed the early settlers to do the hard labor and to build the cities around them before they could realize that those original natural values that were taken away were actually of importance to humanity.

The rampant “gardening” did build a home for the Euro-Americans. But it also built a wall between them and the natural world after over a century people began to see this error. The Romantic Movement painted an entirely new and positive image of what wilderness could be. Their wilderness began to be a place where one could in-fact find God. Instead of a place that needed to be tamed for man, it was a place where one could see the work of a higher power. Because they had pushed themselves away from wilderness, they started to understand what value it really held. The beauty and raw visceral experience that wilderness allowed for was starting to become clear to some.

While the early Bible-driven settlers were ideologically against wilderness and established the extractive mentality, the Romantics helped begin a movement away from those exploitive mentalities. If the Romantics were to “take” anything from the wild places it would simply be the betterment of oneself through the expansion of consciousness that can come from having a sublime experience.

Perhaps no one exemplifies this better than Henry David Thoreau. In his pivotal works he shows the reader a natural world that should be respected and the need for the primitive life that one can live from working within its accordance. His fusion of Transcendentalism and Romanticism helped to set up a new Western thought that included wilderness, wildness, and the power they held. The American philosopher was ultimately able to begin shifting the narrative away from the traditional settler ideology.

Thoreau says in his essay “Ktaddan,” “It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever, — to be the dwelling of man, we say — so nature made it and man may use it if he can… no.” The land he states here just exists. This landscape did not need to be a made into a garden or seen as a wasteland. It just existed on its own terms. It is there for nature’s sake. If humans so choose, we can contact that wild but we must remember we are visitors to it.

Modern academics, writers, and artists in Utah have realized this for decades. From the Wasatch to Glen Canyon advocates have fought for land to exist on its own terms. Movements formed from the protection of these wild places has worked to shift to a more holistic management of land in the state. There have been wins and losses depending on who is telling the story. That idea will be explored later, but first we must look at the model Americans’ land management system is founded upon. This is necessary because it is in that system that conservation must take place.

20th century land ethics

After generations of the Biblical “gardening” of America, policy makers began to realize that the country was losing valuable material resources. Like the city dwellers turned Transcendentalists that realized the power of wilderness, this understanding was a response to degradation. By the turn of the twentieth century, logging and agriculture had decimated the forests. Theodore Roosevelt saw the need to act because of these exhausted resources and a deeper problem he saw with American consciousness. His actions worked on both sides of the preservation/ intrinsic and objective resource conservation spectrum. He saw the end of the frontier and the total civilization of the country as a softening of American culture. He revered wilderness and stated, “There are no words that can tell of the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm.” He also recognized that people needed to use the land for building society in a smart manner. Both of these mentalities led him to work on the issue of managing and protecting land with John Muir and Gifford Pinchot.

Muir and Pinchot have become the Forest Service’s metric for understanding the continuum of conservation and preservation in America. Both held council with Roosevelt and helped set a framework for what would become the country’s policy and management practice surrounding public land. Muir and Pinchot worked together on many issues; they were even close friends for a time. But, ultimately their ideologies were not compatible and they differed in their perception and actions on the land.

Muir was energized by the Transcendentals and Romantics. Nash draws an interesting picture of Muir, situating him much further to one side of the environmental consciousness spectrum. While the Transcendentals spoke and wrote highly of the sublime, Muir went further. Muir thought that wild nature was the conductor for God’s work. This is a progressive move away from the Euro-American settlers that believed God’s image was a tamed place. Muir said that nature was a “window opening into Heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator.” To him, visceral and sublime experiences put the person in a position where they were not only bettering themselves, they were closer to God. Through this lens Muir explored the natural world, and understood it to be more important than a place humans used for utilitarian purposes. To him, these places were worth protecting for the sake of their intrinsic values. The wilderness was a literal cathedral.

Pinchot was a centrist. His beliefs stemmed from the idea that the country and its resources were values that the government needed to protect for their use. His concept is truly the basis of sustainability for the sake of humankind. He wrote, “The object of the great conservation movement is just this, to make our country a permanent and prosperous home for ourselves and for our children, and for our children’s children, and it is a task that is worth the best thought and effort of any and all of us.” The embedded message is that the country must protect land not for its “cathedral” like values but because of its concrete resources that all Americans will need both in the present and the future. Pinchot certainly had foresight; this passage was taken from a book that was written in 1910 and goes on to describe the decimation of the forests and the exhaustion of coal as serious concerns to current and future generations.

To accomplish this goal of protection Pinchot advocated for “wise-use” of natural resources especially in forestry. He excelled in regulating the “fail” of the forest and working to plant new trees. The trees then were ultimately to be used for an end. President Roosevelt also believed that the point of our country was to continue growing into a “home” for its American population. Roosevelt appointed Pinchot the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service and created the system that much of the West’s public lands still functions under.

Muir believed that his two peers did not go far enough in their care for wildspace. While he travelled extensively with Roosevelt and was friends with Pinchot, their friendship ultimately deteriorated. He saw their “wise-use” stewardship as selling out the place. In his famous fight against the damming of Hetch Hetchy, a project both of the other gentlemen supported, he said, “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the almighty dollar!” He would ultimately “be done with” Pinchot when it came to land management, specifically over Pinchot’s allowance of sheep in woodlands. Because of Muir’s apparent extremist fashion, Pinchot’s conservation mentality has been historically upheld in the country’s use of land. However, Muir’s preservation values are recognized in the country’s national parks and his voice still resonates strongly among groups that work to preserve the land for its own sake, not for our human values.

Later in the twentieth century, the environmental movement was brought to a new level by the “Land Ethic” of Aldo Leopold. Leopold was a natural progression in the line of philosophy that Muir and Pinchot helped forge. Leopold called conservation “the state of harmony between men and land.” He said that conservation was an “embryo” and a necessary mentality but he also believed that it was “inconceivable that an ethical relationship to the land could exist without love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value.” He goes on to say that, “by value, I mean something far broader than mere economical value, I mean value in the philosophical sense.” This deeper understanding of value resonates with Muir, while his appreciation of conservation builds from Pinchot.

Leopold’s Land Ethic itself is a hybrid of American ideologies. It combines ideas of ecological ethics, philosophical ethics, and economic ethics. He says that each of these processes “has its origin in the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to evolve modes of co-operation.” The Land Ethic takes this principle but instead of breaking these communities apart, it recognizes that they are innately combined. It expands the idea of human ethics and includes that of the land, of the physical place where we reside. The community is then not only the economic or social institution but it also “include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

Leopold tells us that one might argue that we already do this. And indeed, here in the Wasatch it is often the argument of the developer that the mountains already have large areas of wilderness protected. But, because of the current size and location of the resort boundaries these arguments only work on a superficial level. Ecological systems need vast areas that are not influenced by humans. The soil, water, animals, and trees benefit from further protection of larger wild areas. The Land Ethic says that the way to ultimately enhance the economic value of place is to uphold its environmental values. This is a different narrative and is perhaps a longer payoff than the developing agency’s mindset, but it is what citizens of Utah want and what the land needs. The tourism and resorts can market the natural values, and in turn draw people to their facilities.

The Land Ethic is the philosophy to use to govern the foothills and mountains surrounding Salt Lake, Utah, and Summit Counties. It builds upon the ideologies from Native Americans through the mid-twentieth century and continues to ask the current generation to act inclusively toward a progressive management strategy. To give the non-human entities ethical treatment is to recognize they have their own value. Upholding this belief is not revolutionary. It works to comply with natural boundaries that have existed since before human time. It also regards the conservation efforts that have been used to protect and sustain the national forests. When wildlands are protected in abundance for a variety of environmental reasons, it in turn protects the values that cater to human life like watershed and access to recreation. If managers and policy makers uphold this Land Ethic in the Wasatch in coming years of decision making, all entities will in turn prosper.



Here in Utah, leaders from many disciplines have created an odd and at some times disingenuous mixture of these values and management strategies. As this essay will show in the coming sections, there has been a legacy of post-manifest destiny environmental degradation that has been the driver for Utah’s economy and management of wild space. Utilitarianism and hapless behavior has destroyed, eroded, and flooded many delicate landscapes. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, factions of Americans, both Native and Euro alike started to realize this and pushback against fossil fuel and development agencies and the ultimate loss of place that they perpetuate. Like the early wilderness advocates it took over-urbanized lives for people to understand that the places they actually cared about were becoming privatized and disappearing. Edward Abbey’s pilgrimage from urban New Jersey to the desert made him realize the power and importance of place.

The coming section will look at the history of some of Utah’s lands and how perceptions have changed around them over the years. It will begin with the utilitarian modes of management and then move into proposals for a more progressive future. From the stance of the Environmental Humanities, the issue of land use is as contentious and as polarized as ever. This will discuss some places and fights land activists have held as well as strategies that are used to mitigate environmental damage and to build a new future for the public and private lands in the state.

The desert

Southern Utah has been subject to over a century of extraction and exploitation. While these industries and activities continue, many have recognized the need to fight back against their outdated economic and environmental strategies. Ranching and mining have been and continue to be the driving forces economically in the region but interest is shifting and the area has seen the rise of tourism as a lucrative undertaking. Take Moab for example. Its first industry was mining and milling uranium. For two decades in the mid-twentieth century Moab was “the uranium capital of the world.” But extractive industries never last. The cost to the people and the place has traditionally warranted the collapse of these dirty practices. The uranium boom felt this pressure and after the Manhattan Project was over and nuclear energy ended the market dropped off. Now, Moab is subject to millions of visits every year from international travelers hoping to see the famous red rock formations and desert landscapes. Moab’s industry is now run by tourism but the toxic tailings left behind from the uranium industry still need to be cleaned up.

In many ways this is a positive shift for the town of Moab specifically but the fight for a less extractive economy is far from over. Throughout central, eastern, and southern Utah there is large-scale extraction in the form of oil, gas, and coal. These fossil fuel industries push money into Utah’s local politics and continue the mining and burning of greenhouse gas emitting energy. There have been many advocates for change to counter these industries. From the mid-fifties up until present day individuals like Edward Abbey and groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance have fought for the last shreds of wild Utah. Terry Tempest Williams says in her book Red, “The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with hands clasped that we might act with restraint, that we might leave room for the life that is destined to come. To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle.” Her immediacy and passion is channeling generations of land advocates who have seen the boom and bust cycle like that of Moab’s uranium and want to protect Southern Utah’s unique and fragile land. Humans have immense power to destroy place and she asks them to understand that, and to act responsibly. The West has a tradition of developing for economic interest, but once it’s developed there is no going back. So often the place is turned into a wasteland. Her call for protection is innately speaking of sustainability for the land.

Abbey, Muir, and Leopold would certainly agree with Williams’ sentiment. It is even reminiscent of Pinchot who asked to think about our “children’s children.” They all understand the importance of a place for a vast canvas of values. To live within the natural boundaries as the Native Americans that came before us is to live in accordance with what the earth allows. When industry adds overbearing and often times permanent infrastructure, that place and the resources it allows for are quickly wiped out. While Moab was able to rebound from its uranium decline, it was because of the national parks and amazing recreation areas that surround it. The fossil fuel industry continues to to destroy that potential economy and human relationship with the place. If the citizens of the West petition their government to regulate these industries and use the conservation tools at their disposal, they would certainly protect the place. Citizens also often behave poorly in the desert. Take for example the debate over reduced access for the off-highway vehicle community or mountain bikers in wilderness areas. There have been many protests against stricter regulation on riding in sensitive environments. Some of the recreation community say that their activities are their rights and that the government is too harsh in closing areas. As with most activities, these create new roads, fragment ecosystems, and lead to erosion. Unfortunately, much of the old-style of land management mentality is alive in Utah, both among the citizens as well as in the government.

Utah’s state politicians have historically worked to help uplift the shortsighted economic gains. U.S. Representative Rob Bishop, among others, have introduced the “Public Lands Initiative” that Bishop believes will “fight to protect the livelihoods of public land users while ensuring that we are responsible stewards of our natural resources.” He is also “…confident that the principles of multiple-use and protecting our environment can go hand-in-hand.” This rhetoric is similar to that of Gifford Pinchot and indeed, the Mountain Accord here in the Wasatch. The balance he hopes to strike would allow for some protection and more mineral development and ranching. But the tool that Bishop wants to use to find his balance is very contentious. The bill would put much of Utah’s federally governed land into the hands of state officials who are entrenched in the single-ethic mentality. Officials like state representative Ken Ivory who “aim to throw open Utah’s landscapes to extractive uses and motorized access without the hassles of federal land-use planning and safeguards for endangered species, water quality, archaeological sites and other natural values” are also working hard for the land turn-over. What these politicians label as stewardship has been called a private gains land-grab. Much of their financing can be traced back to the very industries that the privatization would benefit. Federal protections are often the only regulation that keeps lands from being used to the point of exploitation, degradation, and permanent closures.

Citizens in rural Utah see this taking back of land as beneficial. Towns have flourished using the extractive mentality of the early settlers, people have profited off the land. But as Americans have seen time and time again, these industries, while lucrative for a time, do not last. Through pitching the idea of states’ rights and the rugged individualism of the West, they have worked to sell public lands into the hands of extraction and ranching, ultimately taking away the public’s ability to enjoy open space. Ironically enough, the destruction of the land through mining will ultimately be the death of the Western mentality they pitch.

Movements like the Bears Ears National Monument proposal recognize this disguised conservation language. This movement has gained support from a variety of influential groups ranging from the Navajo Nation to rock climbers against the Public Lands Initiative. Bears Ears is a cross-interest coalition and doing exactly the kind of collaborative work that needs to be done to protect Utah. A proponent of Bears Ears says, “tribes have proposed land conservation as the solution to land-use challenges in southeast Utah, and we do not view our ancestral homeland as a battleground between state and federal control. The Bears Ears landscape is symbolic of the rich history and culture of our Native ancestors and serves as a place of healing, not division.” To them, and to 66% of Utahns and 86% of Navajo, this is a non-issue. Conservation of place is the path forward. There is a lot of momentum behind the proposal but until large open spaces are put into protection in perpetuity, big questions remain for South Eastern Utah. 

How do we protect these places? Wallace Stegner tells Westerners that they must trust the federal government, “One thing that Westerners should ponder and generally do not is their relationship to and attitude toward the federal presence. The federal presence should be recognized as what it is: a reaction against our former profligacy and wastefulness, an effort at adaptation and stewardship in the interest of the environment and the future.” This ultimately tells many Americans what they do not want to hear. We need to be regulated. The industries that exist historically and continue to destroy landscapes and pollute the environment. A designation from the federal government that upholds wilderness values helps to mitigate these over-reaching economic projects. This is what the desert needs and what the Wasatch too will need.

The Wasatch

The Wasatch Mountains have a similar story to the desert. From logging to mining, Westerners lived on and used the land. The mountains were first heavily logged for the building of homes and the construction of the mining industry that the mountains provide. The land is still riddled with huge tailing piles, old infrastructure, and tunnels that stretch for miles underground. The mountains feel, at times, like an outdoor museum with its focus on the silver boom. The boom and bust cycle itself resonates off these left-behind relics.

Many fortunes were made, and many fortunes never came to fruition. A classic example of the bust end of the boom-bust industry is that of the Emma Mine. The once 2 million dollar profit mine became famous for its sale to British investors. The investors were sent fraudulent core samples and swindled out of 5 million dollars for the mine. This triggered a massive lawsuit and what-could-have been a war between the U.S. and England. This swindle is allegorical to the issue of mineral extraction as an industry. At some point the resource will be gone, the land will be scarred, and the only way to make money will be to cheat one another out of the scraps that are left. In the wake of this industry, the forests of the Wasatch were decimated.

Even Environmental Humanities are tied to this outdated industry. The building we are sitting in right now was first run by Colonel Edward Connor of the U.S. Army. Connor was Salt Lake City’s secondary father (after Brigham Young) because of his effort to bring gentiles into the valley. He also had years of experience of fighting Indians. These prerequisites made him an excellent candidate to be the first commander of Fort Douglas which was built to keep both the Native Americans and the Mormons in line with the United States. Through his time here he played a role in many historical moments. His most notable was leading the massacre of the Shoshone at Bear River. They killed hundreds of men, women, and children and returned to Ft. Douglas as heroes, but as history tells it, the “Bear River massacre deserves greater attention than the mere sign presently at the site.”

After his time in the army Connor worked to sway the political atmosphere in Salt Lake by starting campaigns that work against the Mormon hierarchy. While he saw some successes, he was often and unsurprisingly met with pushback from the Church. By then, his business was in minerals. Connor worked to extract silver and other heavy metals in the mountains surrounding Salt Lake. But as the swindlers in the Emma Mine realized, the mountains were beginning to run out of the easily accessible resources that had driven the economy for so many for years. In 1892 Connor, the “father of Utah mining” died and with him the industry that had failed to make him rich. Because of the mining the forests in the Wasatch were depleted and in need of serious attention.

In 1905 Gifford Pinchot visited Salt Lake City. He spent time working on the future of Salt Lake’s water quality with Senator Reed Smoot and Mayor Richard P. Morris. Senator Smoot had called Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, in to help re-forest the degraded Wasatch. Pinchot was worried about the forests in the West, and specifically the deforestation in the Wasatch’s effect on the watershed of Salt Lake City. He recognized that not only had the silver industry busted, but through the deforestation the watershed had too. He said, “The government realizes that water coming from tracts covered by trees is better and purer in the very nature of things than water coming from the barren hills. This is the reason much attention will be paid to the culture of trees in such tracts as the Salt Lake Reserve.” The tale of conservation was close to Salt Lake in these early years after mining and logging had created obvious negative impacts to the watershed.

Pinchot knew the importance of trees, he saw the ability to maintain healthy forests as the way to reestablish the watershed. He knew the threat and the state wanted his advice on how to mitigate it. He told the Salt Lake Herald, “Your city can have a superb water supply from the Big Cottonwood, but the watershed must be covered with trees and the greatest care must be used to protect the streams from pollution from the ranches, camps and mines in the canyon.” Pinchot laid the foundation for the same conversations that managers are having in the Wasatch now. This is the concept of sustainability through conservation occurring over a century before the city introduced the Mountain Accord, an agency that has been debating the future of the management of the Wasatch Mountains. Instead of polluting the mountains with over cutting, or overuse of any kind for economic gain, managers must instead look at the system as a whole. Pinchot in the Wasatch shows that agencies from across both state and federal lines once respected the diverse and complicated systems the mountains provide. As Utah’s politicians and developers try to privatize more land this is something that must be remembered.   

After Pinchot came to Utah many of the canyons were protected and forests were restored. For a time the Wasatch would be free from Euro-American exploitation. Even though recreation had started as early as 1870 in the Wasatch and over the course of the early to mid twentieth century skiing would become a beloved pursuit it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the Wasatch would be subject to the resort powerhouses that exist today.

Enter skiing

The American people want open space. They want to see nature. William Cronon outlines in his essay “The Trouble With Wilderness” that citizens recreate outdoors because it “embod[ies] the national frontier myth, standing for the wild freedom of America’s past and seeming to represent a highly attractive natural alternative to the ugly artificiality of modern civilization.” That is to say, the American citizenry is repeating the earlier trends that Thoreau and Roosevelt championed. People feel themselves getting “soft” and need escape from “civilization.” The Wasatch has provided people with this escape. It is that feeling of breaking free from the cultural bonds of artificial America that has allowed for rampant tourism development in both the desert and the mountains. Not only allowed for it to happen, but supported it as a big business. As with mineral extraction, these industries have once again stepped away from the balance of conservation.

The Wasatch started to attract skiers as early as 1930 but it wasn’t until the 80’s that it became big business. Skiing in Utah from 1930 to1960 involved fun-loving, European ski jump-emulating locals. They held impromptu contests and wandered the range on archaic ski equipment. Soon the first rope tows were installed. People took to the hills for recreation, exploration, and because of its social aspects. From historical reports, it sounded adventurous and fun.

This model shifted and from 1960 to 1980. All the resorts that exist in the Wasatch opened with base operations, lodging, and chairlifts. In 1970, locals began to question the motives of the resorts. People like Gale Dick, the founder of Save Our Canyons, saw areas he loved quickly become closed to outdoor enthusiasts and opened only to paying customers. While skiing in Gad Valley in the 1970s, Dick and his friends were waved off from skiing a slope by a man at the bottom. They thought there was an issue with the snow, perhaps avalanche danger. But, at the bottom they discovered that the man was a photographer trying to keep the slope pristine for an advertisement for the new resort Snowbird. This was Dick’s moment of realization that skiing had gone from leather boots and white knuckle adventure to a corporate industry.

Dick and Save Our Canyons would go on to push back against the ever encroaching resort plans. Because of the massive swaths of degraded mining land the resorts were able to purchase or lease, the organization countered with legislation for federally designated wilderness in the range. There are now three large Wilderness areas, the Lone Peak Wilderness, Mount Olympus Wilderness, and Twin Peaks Wilderness. When the 2002 Olympics came to town, the organization fought the prospect of that much traffic and development in the two narrowest canyons. They pushed the Olympics out of the Cottonwood Canyons and the games were ultimately held in Park City and at Snowbasin. These wins for preservation are valuable to the Salt Lake community for many reasons, but ultimately the projects are piecemeal battles that are often countered by other, bigger projects the resorts and tourism industry puts on the table.

Much land directly adjacent to resorts and between the resorts has been left unprotected. This is, partially, because some of the land is owned by the resorts themselves, but also because “wilderness,” the highest protection for land is a polarizing designation. It is hard to claim “wilderness” in the Wasatch if an area has roads on it or does not fit the federal description of “untrammeled.” In order to pass protections that would encompass the wide variety of users, owners, and values in some of these more traveled regions, a different designation is necessary. This is an important component to the dialogue in the Wasatch, and one that this thesis through its understanding of the Mountain Accord process will come back to later.

In the late 70s Dick warned that Salt Lake citizens were “in the eye of the hurricane” when it came to Wasatch Development. He was right about that, and the storm has gotten bigger and stronger with every new iteration of development. Take for example SkiLink, a massive project in 2009 that looked to connect The Canyons (now Park City) resort and Solitude. It was pitched to some as a “transportation solution” and to others as a world class skiing experience. The gondola however was contrived by developers and state legislators, like the Public Lands Initiative to grab public lands and use them for private gains. State reps almost slipped it past city decision makers without any public input. People would have lost access to land that they paid for with their tax dollars. Aside from that backdoor approach, it was also identified as invasive to the watershed. These unsavory realities made the plan highly contentious.

These serious concerns aside, the main reason to combat these big developments is that they are sold as ski resorts when in reality they are something much different. The projects that the ski resort industry proposes and carries out are marketing tools. The gondola was not an answer to transit; it would not have made for a good skier experience, and it certainly would not treat the land as part of the ethical sphere. Projects like SkiLink are tools to get people to come to Utah to use the resorts’ other amenities, namely lodging and real estate. To use the big linked resorts as bait for the customer is seen as good business. It draws people into grand “villages” and condominiums where they then spend the real money. As for SkiLink, fortunately the city saw the plan for what it was and with help from the Salt Lake Department of Public Utilities and a large groundswell of citizen support, they shut it down.

Certainly there is an argument to be made for the economic value of these big developments. Real estate and infrastructure bring people to a place to spend, in many cases, lots of money. This is easily countered though; people also come to Utah for the wide open space. The state pitches the idea of the Wild West, and the “world’s best snow” as attractions. People come for those things in wild landscapes. More human built development will not make environmental and place-based values better. The resort expansion is a momentary economic boost, like the boom and bust cycles that have plagued the state for so long. A sustainable model would to make the current broken ground stronger, and protect the unbroken ground in perpetuity through a federal designation. If developers continue unrestrained use of a place, the land will look as it does after other extractive industries are finished with it.

The problem with resort villages is they resonate with Cronon’s issues with current human understanding of wilderness. People are not using these areas to better themselves or gain a deeper understanding of ecosystems and ecology, and with all the technology and access, there is little physical connection to a place. Instead, people are using the resorts as a way to distance themselves from “real life.” Tourists use the mountains like they would Disney World. There are even rollercoasters built into the base-areas. Cronon states that these are false realities that are trying to emulate American ruggedness and frontier-mentality when in reality they are dividing people from the natural world. He says that, “Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists, who brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled. For them, wild-land was not a site for productive labor and not a permanent home; rather, it was a place of recreation.” With this take on wilderness, people recreating ultimately will take from the landscape then return home, having not expanded their boundary or reciprocated anything. This is another place where the ethical understanding is out of sync. Lands are not simply ours to enjoy and leave. Cronon calls the place we live, “the middle ground.” To treat the wild as a separate entity altogether is to misunderstand people’s connection to land. Perception is influenced by actions. In continuing to act like wild-space is just a conduit for economic gains, the divide between “us” and “it” will become greater and environmental issues will worsen.

While SkiLink was defeated, bigger and more invasive projects have been introduced. ONE Wasatch is the current tool that the marketing agencies are using to bring people to the area. ONE would not only connect Canyons and Solitude, it would link all seven (now six) of the Wasatch resorts. Once again, these new connections would be on both public and private land in upper-watershed areas. The areas would require new roads, trees to be cut, and limit the dispersed and mixed use in the mountains. While some of the land is private, there are certainly areas of public land that would impacted. As there is nothing like this in North America, it is often compared to the Alps. As Executive Directory of Save Our Canyons Carl Fisher points out, “Proponents of One Wasatch like to compare this concept with Europe, but the Wasatch is hardly Europe. The Alps are approximately 150 miles wide, the Wasatch is only a paltry 15 miles wide.” His sentiment is shared by many. In an interview professional mountaineer and land advocate Andrew McLean even said that the reason European skiers like to come here is because they don’t have the clutter of trams and chairs dotting every mountain that they see at home.

At some point, developers and skiers alike must realize that this “tight” Central Wasatch does have a carrying capacity. There are not more areas for people to go. These ridge lines do not cross into another country. What there is, is all that we have. The way to mitigate this is not by adding more chairlifts. It is to create better transit options and hardened nodes in high-density recreation areas like resort base areas so the skier can get the most out of their chosen resort. If the resorts and developers want to create more hotels and condos, it should happen within these already impacted areas. A New York Times article from 2011 said that “Canyons had gotten a facelift” after its acquisition by Talisker and Vail. Indeed, Canyons (now Park City) underwent many changes including new base-area investments and new lifts. But all of these changes were on ground that had already been broken, in areas that already saw high traffic. Similarly, Solitude realigned a chairlift in 2015 which made the user experience better, without opening up a whole new area of pristine lands. Let the resorts make these needed upgrades, but do it to places that have already felt the impact of human development.

Skiing as an activity is a beautiful thing. Through it I have learned about nature, place, and myself through the interaction with the environment skiing has provided. It is a way to travel silently and swiftly through vast open slopes, tight and dark woodlands, and high alpine crags. It has led me to adventure and dream. It has undoubtedly been the inspiration for all aspects of my life. I hope that generations beyond me can experience what I have. The resorts I grew up with fostered my early connection to the mountains. There is serious value in people being able to use them as a means for accessing a wild experience. The problem is that the balance is off between the resorts and the land. The amount and strength of human infrastructure specifically in the Wasatch outweighs the natural space. To let this happen is to take away the value of the skiing itself. It is not a sustainable way to nurture the industry that relies on wilderness. The skiing is not about the chair or the lodge It is about the mountain and the snow. It is about the freedom the hills provide. The early skiers felt this; they felt the sublime power as well as the playfulness. I have felt it my whole life. We recognize that the places were the source of the feeling. Let us preserve that feeling, for us and for those who come after us.

The future

Through the over-development of wild areas, the extraction mentality is proliferated and Americans are growing more distant from the realities of the natural world. We forget that people are not separate from nature. From the air we breath to the water we drink, the natural world produces things we need everyday. It is not as simple as turning on a tap, or opening a bag of potato chips. Sustenance of all kinds begins with natural processes. Managers, developers, and policy makers must build upon this reality. New development must include the land and the natural world into the ethics of everyday life.

The future of the Wasatch is at a crossroads. The tourism industry is at a place where the extraction industries came to, time and time again. The big development that comes along with skiing is too much for the landscape. Like the degradation felt from the mining industry, proposed projects outside of the resort boundaries will cripple the last shreds of unprotected high alpine ecosystem. Aldo Leopold tells us that “Mechanized recreation already has seized nine tenths of the woods and wilderness; a decent respect for minorities should dedicate the other tenth to wilderness.” Shouldn’t planners heed this warning? When looking at a map of Salt Lake City and the Wasatch, it is obvious that humans have used their share. If future plans are serious about finding sustainability in values, the managers must act as though the land deserves a voice in the issue. There is enough human infrastructure for the ski industries’ economic ethics. The Wasatch’s future now needs to cater to the preservation and restoration side of the spectrum.

This argument has been made in many regions of the continent pertaining to tourism. While cities like Moab have found a balance, it is often the case that the tourism industry has simply replaced the extraction industries as the degraders. In Banff Canada multi-agency parties have struggled to find a balance between tourism and preservation. In that community people like conservationist Harvey Locke have worked to create national parks that both preserve the resource as well as draw in tourists to continue the economic growth of the region. He tells a very similar story to that of the Wasatch’s development rise. He writes in that developers in the 1980’s said, “‘You felt like a fool if you didn’t get in on it.’” In Canada and Utah the industry took over the mountainous areas. They saw a free market to exploit. But now those developments are there forever, and there are enough of them. The mentality that breeds these utilitarian and unsustainable actions resonates with the Tragedy of the Commons. Author Garrett Hardin suggests that rampant usage will ultimately ruin that resource for all. Because there is good money to be made in unrestrained development, the tourism industry will use an area until the place is no longer a natural or sustained resource. The founder of Black Diamond Equipment Peter Metcalf said in an interview that the Little and Big Cottonwood Canyon resorts have been pushed to do this by bigger companies purchasing resorts in Park City, a landscape that has been totally privatized.

Locke recognized this threat in Banff and through the 90’s the town worked with conservationists, developers, and the recreation industry to create a park that balanced all of the values while sustaining the ecology and intrinsic qualities of the place. This is an inspiring success story. It recognizes that preserving the place itself is worth it for the economy, without unrestrained development. Similar to Leopold, Locke supports “giving” nature its fair share. He and biologists like E.O. Wilson support proposals that let wild-lands keep half of the Earth. Again, looking at a map of the Wasatch and Salt Lake City one can see, humans have more than their share. They recognize that ecosystems need large tracks of land to thrive. Small pockets of wilderness or national parks are not enough. Nature needs connectivity. The Wasatch and Banff are both part of the Western Wildlife Corridor, a massive area for the movement of species.

It is not only conservationists, scientists, and hydrologists that weigh in on this decision. Citizens of Utah, who ultimately should have a voice, have commented on the future of the Wasatch. According to the Central Wasatch Visitors Study, people are ready for protections like those in Banff for the mountains surrounding Salt Lake. In the comments of these recent surveys taken over the course of a year, respondents have said “no to new developments.” Respondents directly spoke against ONE Wasatch as well as new ski resort development more generally. Skiers, hikers, environmentalists, bikers, dog walkers, and everyone in between have all commented the same things. The reason is simple and it’s because they all have something in common: they all care about the land; they all want to enjoy its beauty as well as allow it to thrive. In managing the place in such a manner, the sustainability of all benefits are upheld. People that never set foot in the Wasatch are still inherently connected to its worth. The watershed provides water to 60% of the population with culinary water. The mountains are a constant reminder of the greatness of the alpine environment, juxtaposed with the city. To protect that is live by the Land Ethic, and this is truly a moment for Land Ethic to be the guiding strategy. The mountains will maintain their ecological and geological qualities and in turn protect culinary water, recreation areas, and a high quality of life.

While the Banff model is the desired outcome, the situation in the Wasatch will require a different management plan. Utah’s culture, policy, and laws are much different from those of Banff. But these differences aside, the Wasatch also needs a strategy that embraces complicated values. Fortunately the government in America has grappled with this for generations, and has given the people tools for making protections a reality. Take a national monument or national conservation designation for example. These are legally binding steps that would allow for a myriad of current dispersed use as well as protection and restoration for the land. It is something like this that the Wasatch needs.

Managers and policy makers have to take pragmatic steps to putting the talk into action. While many battles have been won, this essay has shown that there are many more coming. Harvey Locke said, “It was obvious that fighting individual projects in this park environment was a fool’s game” in Banff’s fight against the development. It is true here too. Piecemeal battles have traditionally been the way that Save Our Canyons and others have fought, but the projects are too big and the last bits of wild Wasatch too small to continue on this track. So, to answer this question of what preservation looks like on a large scale, the city has asked for accord from all the agencies that influence decisions in the mountains. This project has been underway in Salt Lake. Mountain Accord is a process that has, as of July 2015, been pushed into its second phase. It works to discover what interests are most valued in the Wasatch and make a plan that moves forward in upholding those values. But perhaps the most important component in protecting place is knowing when it is your time to make a stand for a place. In current and forthcoming processes, those opportunities exist.


Where Is the West

After my pondering I lifted up my heavy pack and continued panting up the gentle track. Because of my break my skins got wet and snow stuck to them. This slowed me down. The familiar gliding rhythm was gone. My skis would not propel me forward. Anger and frustration set in. My face was burning. I wanted to bail. I wanted to ski back to my comfortable van and maybe just spend the night in Grizzly, a shorter approach and tamer landscape. But no, I needed to access and sleep alone in wilderness. I wanted to embrace the wild how Thoreau had. Besides, how could I be mad? I was going camping in the woods with my skis. I needed to keep telling myself that. I swallowed my fallback plan and kept trudging.

After another slow twenty minutes the skin track began to steepen. I wound through aspen trees on the west slope of Rainbow Ridge. There were low willow thickets I had to navigate and I crossed some snowshoe and boot prints as well as tracks from my fellow skinners. Because it was a weekday these were the only traces of people. I thought of what those prints meant, what my ski track meant. Connecting to nature is so easy to talk about but the impact of people in this place is more serious than we often think. Studies have shown that “impacts from outdoor recreation and tourism are the fourth-leading reason that species are listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered, behind threats from nonnative species, urban growth and agriculture” and that “we’re all complicit. In a not-yet-published review of 218 studies about recreation’s impact on wildlife, researchers found more evidence of impacts by hikers, backcountry skiers and their like than by the gas-powered contingent.” These realities tick in my mind as I wander around in the woods. I always look for the trail that will cause the least impact. I brought poop bags up into the Lone Peak Wilderness with me, hoping to reduce my stinky footprint. But the fact remains a human’s decision to access wild places does cause a distinct affect upon it. Onward I beat into nature.

I finally came to the bridge, the last landmark before the Red Pine Church and the final steep push to my camp. The river that flows down from Red Pine Lake was exposed here. It bubbled out from the snow and back down the direction I had come. I was in a low valley, surrounded by evergreens and in the shade. After the bridge, I would begin climbing again up the last steep section of touring before my camp. I had to ski down a little slope in order to cross the bridge. With my heavy packs and my tired legs this was not an easy task. I pointed my tips straight down and committed to getting it over quickly.

I had slid down and across the bridge and abruptly hit the small bank of snow on the west side causing me to tumble. I feel hard into the opposite side of the bank. My weight caused me to slam into the crusty snow. I lay there for a minute, glad I didn’t fall into the water. My breath was heavy and came in deep gulps. I was glad to be alone. I dug my pole into the hard-pack and slipped my skis out from under myself so they were downhill from the rest of my body, so they would not slide when I stood. I slowly cranked my weight into the poles and pushed my body into them. They bowed out slightly but held. I got to my feet. I leaned the crooks of my shoulders in the tops of the poles and rested. The final push lay ahead.

Why had I chosen to come here? I wanted to camp and ski. I wanted to exercise. I wanted to push myself and explore new areas. I generally knew what lay above my camp but I had never really ventured much further beyond it. I wanted to see, and through seeing gain a new understanding. I didn’t want to not build it up too much, but I wanted it to be about more than just me. I wanted it to be about the mountains. The plants: the aspens, the firs, the spruces, and the pines. The earth: granite and its crumbling craggy texture, its sharp grainy edges and permanence. The snow: the depth and quality, from graupel, to ice, to crystals, to powder. I also wanted it to be about the city and the human community. I was always aware of it, of society; the sound it produced was a waterfall-like rumble, the light that reflected off the sky at night, the reality of the urban hung high in the alpine. My friends and work constantly dwelled in my mind. I loved the proximity of these drastically different environments. I wanted all of these things and what I needed was some thin air and some space to think.

I moved on to the last section of my hike. There were no more boot-prints or snowshoe tracks here. It was only skiers. Skiers that wanted to access north facing shots of shade protected powder. As I skinned up the hill I looked at the nice open runs. The tracks through the snow looked like perfect paint strokes on an otherwise empty canvas. The turns had thrown snow into great arcs spilling from the impact the skis had made. I knew how that skier felt as he or she sped quietly through the forest.

Near the end of my hike l collapsed again. I was trying to take my bags off for a rest and became off balance and toppled into the snow. I was unprepared for the fall and sank deep into cold deep snow. I lost my hat and my feet split at an unnatural angle. My body was downhill from my skis which would make it hard to rise. As I lay there I felt the snow starting to soak into my synthetic long underwear. Water trickled from my wrist down my bare skin into my shirt. These were the only clothes I had. I said aloud to myself, “Get up, you’re going to get wet”. It took almost the last energy I had to kick my feet around so they were below me. I slowly started to rise. It was shady in the evergreens but the sun fractured through their needles. I flipped my feet around from under myself and pushed my weight into the steel ski edges. I thrust my pole down and again pushed up on it. I stood and I was exhausted. I decided then that my bags would have to be shuttled up the last section of switchbacks. I stashed my smaller bag behind a tree and made my way to the top of the ridge with my larger pack. I kept on skinning up the hill.

As I crested the peak, where I hoped to make camp I saw the Pfeifferhorn. It looked like a perfect pyramid, with three distinct ridges and a pointy summit. I knew that lines lurked, and I had never been to the top or any closer than that moment. I was excited to get near to the peak. Maybe gain the summit.

Seeing the Pfeiff and knowing I would be making my home in its shadow gave me new energy. I found my camp and dropped my big green backpack. I skied with my skins on back to my other pack and hiked again, back up the ridge.

Set up the tent, eat food, drink water. The tent is difficult but I take it slowly. I connect the poles at their weaknesses and line them up in the snow. I match each pole with its color coded ring. Soon the skeleton is up, and I toss the tarp over the whole thing. I dug a kitchen into the deep drifts that surrounded my camps. In my kitchen I set up my stove. I must melt snow to drink. I watch the blue flame rip into the aluminum pot. I add snow, one chunk at a time. It turns grey then it slips into the warm bath. Soon I will drink. The work to build my snowy home was a blur but went smoothly. I munch an apple and some nuts. I eat a tin of fish, I like my little home in the trees.

After a while I went for a ski on a slope above and watched the sky change colors over the Hogback, the west ridge that separated me from Hogum fork. The clouds were an orange yellow set in the deepening blue. I couldn’t see the city, but I could hear it. Rush hour traffic was a low groan over the mountains, it was strange to think that the urban environment was only a few miles away. As the sun went down, it started to get cold fast.

A raven circled overhead.

That night I shivered alone in my sleeping bag.

The next day I sat in the snow under the sun and read James Galvin. Galvin writes of the West, its allure and its gradual decline into the future. The character in his book, “…did what he could to protect his own space, his peace, his memories of the other world, the world before this world, the way of life that promised never to end and then ended. These new people couldn’t understand him. Alone was not in their lexicon, not among their desires. They took it wrong.” The dream of the West is dwindling in his characters. They longed for an openness that has been absorbed by sub-lots. They longed for a farm that had been demolished by big ag. Development and “progress” has taken away the soul of the place and the people. I gaze out over the Hogback and the valley beyond and I think of our lives there. What are we doing to protect the values of the West, here in Salt Lake?

Knowing the history is important, but then what do we do with it? How can policy makers engage conservation in the mountains? How can I? I thought of the people that wander in the woods, run cattle, drive dirt bikes, fish, climb, ride chairlifts and how we all have an impact on the place, on the West. What can we do? Part of the answers are in the Mountain Accord. Sitting in the snow and reading Galvin’s allegorical tale, I thought of the Accord.


Mountain Accord


The Mountain Accord (MA) is an ongoing process that began in 2013 and has brought together stakeholders from many groups to discuss the future of the Central Wasatch. The MA Executive Board covers a broad range of values. The MA hopes “to influence future, local, regional and statewide planning and to initiate efforts to enact meaningful protections and preservations for the Central Wasatch in the face of growing pressures on this beloved mountain range.” The MA grapples with these “pressures” by bringing together stakeholders from many sectors. The MA wishes to find a balance among the varying interests. At the core of this debate is understanding how to maintain the region and these interests as “sustainable.” This paper will contextualize the Mountain Accord along the history of land ethic and environmental ideology that the rest of this thesis has aligned with. Using the method of “close reading” which is defined as “the mindful disciplined reading of an object with a view to deeper understanding of its meanings”, this essay will compare the MA to the framework that section one of this thesis has outlined.

Sustainable, or as he called it “wise” use was the bedrock of Gifford Pinchot’s understanding and governance of America’s natural resources. Sustainable development has been defined more recently by the Bruntland Report as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The MA acknowledges the tension between the current use and the future generations on the first page where it states, “we need to take action now to ensure we have clean water, a thriving economy, and an exemplary quality of life — not only for current generations, but for those that come after us.” It implies that we must preserve all of the benefits the mountains provide for years beyond our own. The intent of the MA is to create a plan where all of its issues are consolidated into a long term framework that will give a clear outline as to how preserve the region in a sustainable manner. 

While this perception of sustainability is a positive outlook, the reader must ask “which attribute is most heavily supported by the MA?” Readers of the document are given landscape and wilderness, transportation, watershed, economy, and overall quality of life as the options. Certainly, since the rise of the ski industry these values have often been at odds. As this thesis has proven in Section II, organizations like Save Our Canyons and Wasatch Backcountry Alliance say development has been unchecked and we have seen the degradation of ecosystems, watershed and access. For others like Ski Utah the economic gains are worth these current and potential flaws or that the impacts will not be as great as some fear. Mountain Accord and its members want to address this balance and understand where policy should preserve the mountains and where it can continue to make compromises. While the MA has many redeeming qualities, there are surely outcomes that lead to many ideologies. These ideologies cross the spectrum of American consciousness pertaining to environmental management and consciousness. From utilitarianism to land ethic the Mountain Accord juggles the balance.

If the Mountain Accord upholds the economic or human values of the land it will continue the Wasatch’s trend as a “working landscape.” A working land is exactly what it sounds like, a place that is productive for economic gains. Those that run those industries would even say that this behavior is conservation because they are conserving economic gains. The working landscape though has also been identified as unsustainable as it does not cohere with natural practices. It degrades environmental resources like water that the ecosystems need. If MA upholds this value, the lands are in the same predicament they have been for a century. 

This thesis would argue that the sustainable approach to human interaction with the environment is a multi-ethical one. Indeed, the MA has engaged this ideology by brining together a group of stakeholders that embraces this. From tourism agencies to the preservationists the group that shares the table speaks of all aspects of the wild. In doing this, much of the wording in the MA can be taken both as a responsible “wise-use” model for the mountains or as a wildness-upholding strategy. Depending on the reader and the section, different futures can be seen in the MA. It is important for citizens to realize what the document is saying, and where colorful wording can actually translate to physical protection.

A reading of the MA must also understand when the spectrum of land use is too ambiguous. For example, something that is painted as preservation or restoration from a resort could ultimately be a tool to continue under the utilitarian model. Conversely, the document could be working to pitch an idea that will work for the resorts but leans more toward the direction of preservation. Both of these rhetorical tools can engage readers in different ways but one must be aware when they are doing so. Many of the conservation-heavy projects could even be better than what the mountains have been subject to. While they are not as progressive as they should be, they are a valuable tool for those that are more moderate and could begin to engage environmental issues.

The document begins by telling the reader what the MA is actually aiming to do, what it will uphold, and what will change in regards to Wasatch stewardship. These are all stated in the “Recitals” and “Intended Outcomes”. It discusses the reality of these goals in Section 3 “Agreed Upon Actions”, which spans the majority of the document and certainly is the most complex area. This essay will later look at each of these sections in detail. In doing so, it will show that while the MA has many strong conservation goals and legally binding outcomes there are still projects outside of the MA that do not look as promising. The other potentially negative side of MA is the timing of the goals. This essay will investigate if and how these more utilitarian outcomes are being countered by a more holistic ideology.

A managed land

Theodore Roosevelt instigated a shift in the general use of our forest reserves. Because of overuse and pressures that the land had been subject to he instated the U.S. Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture. In its mission statement it aims “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” This is the agency that now manages the Wasatch and which will continue to after the MA process. Like Mountain Accord the very governing agency wants to find a sustainable future. Indeed, the American forest system was built on this premise. It has been a huge undertaking to grapple with human relationship with land and find ways to regulate our behavior so to not ruin a resource.

As this thesis has described in its Western lands’ history, the conservation and preservation dialogue that lead to the Forest Service effectively began with John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. Muir wanted to preserve lands because they were wild, and because people need wildlands to better themselves and to understand connection to nature. Pinchot’s argument was that surely wilderness was a great place to visit but undoubtedly its highest value was through “wise use.” He believed that we could graze, cut, and mine the lands in a way that did not destroy them or the ecosystems they harbored. Pinchot was named the first chief forester in 1905. The work that Muir put into the effort undoubtedly also helped push our public lands into a more protected place through National Parks or monuments. The Mountain Accord, like the United States at large, is trying to balance between two ideologies.

Both of these Western land practices are of value and they, coupled with others have given managers and advocates the Land Ethic. This multi-disciplined strategy is ultimately the path forward in understanding our relationship to the mountains. It will allow the resorts to function as they have. It preaches the need for more connectivity for wildlife. It values dispersed recreation. The Land Ethic would steward the resource in a sustainable manner for all things, but most importantly for the sake of the natural attributes. To preserve those resources through restoration and preservation is to provide for all of the values that make the Wasatch great.

Many of the outcomes in the MA allude to the conservation or working lands side of the spectrum. But ideally it will allow economic gains while protecting the environment, ecosystem, watershed, and backcountry use. This is the balance that Pinchot worked to keep in his own time. One of the foremost “Agreements” is it will “provide[s] for the long-term protection of the region’s water, lands, environment, recreational opportunities, and economic prosperity.” This is certainly on the “wise use” side of the spectrum. The MA acknowledges that this wise use balance has been out of sync. The document describes “pressure from development” as the threat to the values, so the reader can infer that the outcomes of MA will reduce the amount of unregulated resort building. It will instead help to better the upgrading of resorts by additional development proceeding in areas that have already been built on and using transit measures that will have the least impact.

With language and plans like “smarter development,” all stake holders will see their values represented and all attributes of the natural world will continue to benefit. The resorts will be able to build upon their base areas whilst other agencies will be able to protect the environment. This attitude that the MA takes is indeed inline with the beliefs of Gifford Pinchot and the conservation movement. The document’s conservation language is still better than the current development models in the Wasatch. The reason for that is the balance of wildness values and Land Ethic therein. The importance though, is where these values are and where they are not.

Land ethics in the Mountain Accord 

In the first of the Mountain Accords “Recitals” that begin on page one it states that the Wasatch are “a treasured natural resource” and that the signers “place a high value on the natural environment, wilderness qualities, watershed health, and aesthetics of these mountains.” From an environmental steward’s viewpoint this is a precedent-setting message. To put those values first, considering the history of the range’s interaction with Western development, is a bold statement about the values of the Wasatch. The cross-disciplinary body has decided that these subjective and non-monetary qualities are important. This is a big deal because each of these facilities that want different ends have all decided that the natural world is the first and foremost concern.

This wording of “treasure” as an intrinsic value is more in line with Thoreau and Muir than most of the other conservation-heavy language. To put these things first the MA has realized that wilderness, watershed, and aesthetics are the components of the range that are above all else, the reason the rest exists within. In addition to giving the mountains these qualities it proves that the MA is potentially serious about “sustaining” the place over the economic development. The Wasatch is also referred to as a treasure in Howie Garber’s book Four Season Refuge. He says, “each canyon is unique and is a treasure.” His book is filled with 200 pages of stories, essays and images that resonates with what the Land Ethic preaches in terms of preservation. The MA seems at times to take directly from the multi-stakeholder representation in Garber’s preservation-heavy book.

The MA says, “until now, no effort has built a comprehensive plan that sees the forest for the trees.” This is different language than that of Pinchot who says people need the trees so the watershed can prosper. It suggests that instead of the trees being a tool for human goods, they have stand-alone utility. This embraces the Land Ethic as it gives the trees agency. The trees should be written into the proceeding management plan because they are trees. The MA is doing this here by limiting the primary goals to those outside of the human realm, the Recitals give utility not to people, but to inanimate objects. The trees as a model of necessity for their own sake allows the reader to move into the holistic mentality that Leopold fostered.

These trees too relate to the other reasons for sustaining landscape. The amazingly uniform and unique aspen stands provide habitat that is necessary for the wildlife corridor. Wildlife and biological systems need large tracks of unspoiled land for their ability to thrive. The MA wants to uphold the land for the sake of all entities that exist within the Wasatch. Mountain Accord recognizes that protecting the natural qualities for their sake will have a positive impact on human life; the trees allow for a healthy watershed and high quality of life. This realization is a multi-ethical approach at work. The MA understands these resources can easily come to a place where they are no longer upheld and then lost. It realizes that degradation has happened before and can easily happen again. All it takes is an afternoon with a chainsaw and a whole stand of trees is gone. It tells readers that before anymore large development or decisions are made the land will need to be surveyed and studied. In many cases, the land will have to be restored to a more “natural” state.

The MA answers this concern in their first “Intended Outcome.” It states that we must “preserve lands that provide critical terrestrial and aquatic habitats, corridors for wildlife, natural and scenic values, and recreational opportunities and to restore degraded lands.” This is more of the human inclusive rhetoric that the MA maintains throughout, with the exception of the last point. Here the MA calls for “restoration of degraded lands.”  This tells readers that instead of using the current landscape as a baseline, managers must look at the land as already too far off the scale and reestablish lost ecosystems. Once this work has been completed, managers will be able to assess the range from its more natural setting. This would, through NEPA and an EIS as well as with the guidance of local biologists and scientists, identify and protect smaller wetlands or riparian areas, degraded trails, or eroding hillsides. Some of these actions could be improving current trail systems, managing trailheads with more efficacy, and preventing invasive species and weeds. In doing this managers would not only create a more vibrant ecosystem, they would also improve many of the other issues that Mountain Accord has stated it is working on. Banks that are not eroding are going to naturally filter and maintain our watershed. Parking, trails, and signage that are placed in logical areas make for a better recreation experience. Being able to visit some of the regions and see wildlife thriving will in turn, have a positive impact on our quality of life. It will also allow for ecosystems to naturally flourish. This action would lead managers to a strategy where they can ultimately allow the multi-ethical approach to land preservation and a sustainable future for the mountain range and people that rely on it. 

An important component of restoration is that of human baselines for the environment. People have a concept of what a place is supposed to look like because of how they perceive an area. If a student sees Grizzly without a chairlift, then that is their baseline for that place. If they see a river with an eroding bank, that is their baseline. In order to “preserve” the Wasatch, areas must first be restored to a more natural baseline. In order for areas to be assessed and restored, there would need to be a full stop on development of anything from condos to new mountain biking trails. This will ultimately be necessary for the holistic sake of the Wasatch. Sustaining natural baselines allows future generations of people who recreate in the mountains to understand them as unadulterated agents. The issue is that while MA will ultimately do this, there is nothing holding the resorts to a hold on developments now. As the resorts are all engaged in the MA process, they should put a hold on their large-scale projects. If they do not do this then their involvement is really to make face with the governing body and not to actually work within the boundaries that the accord has set up.

When taken for face value and not considering the necessity for fast-paced restoration, the Mountain Accord looks to support a management plan that will be much more inclusive of the natural world and engage multi-disciplined sustainability. When observed through the lens of speed and the reality of some of the development agencies projects the outlook is not as progressive. So these findings lead us to the questions of when and how will the MA actually protect the Wasatch?

Tools for the land

The largest and most important component in Mountain Accord to an environmental advocate is the “conservation container.” This is the tool the MA has given us to control resort development. In order to get to the place where large scale protection is provided there must first be land swaps between the ski resorts and the public governance. Many of the holdings that ski resorts own are bartering chips for land development or rights to more leases. The MA would consolidate these holdings and turn them over to federal management (U.S. Forest Service), while giving the resorts more power over their base areas and more water rights. The base area component will help with developing the ideas of “nodes” or places where we gather, and access our recreation. Then, as they state in Section 3.2, the legislation will “contain” the entire Central Wasatch in some form of federal management area. This will regulate the ski areas to stay within their current Forest Service boundaries and not allow for any new development outside the boundaries including the land they were given in their swaps.

The conservation container will be a multi-designation patchwork of ownership and management. For the most part this package “could be [a] National Recreation Area (NRA), National Monument, or Conservation Management Area (NCA) (all requiring designation by U.S. Congress).” Each of these areas would ideally allow for the entire Wasatch that is not privately owned to be managed in a specific and permanent way, of which the legislation has yet to be written. The ambiguity here is the indecision around which exact designation they will go with.

A national monument has been identified by Save Our Canyons as the best solution. The national monument, like the proposed area for the Bears Ears is the tool for Land Ethic. It incorporates the ecological values and the human values. It gives better resources to the managers to make sure the restoration projects that will happen are sustainable. These efforts will uphold health of ecosystems. The national monument would protect the current dispersed use and businesses that provide recreation opportunity. Before that layer of protection is put in place the resorts would be able to reinforce their base areas, amenities, parking, and transit for the coming growth.

A national monument has been created in several areas around the country where industry and preservation are usually at odds and values are being lost. Take for example the San Gabriel Mountains outside of L.A. or the Escalante region of Southern Utah. These monuments have helped to protect tourism, watershed, access, wildlife habitat, and economy. The Escalante designation, once a smoldering and contentious topic has become a crown jewel of Utah. From archaeological sites to ranching the designation has protected the values it set out to. The San Gabriel’s, like the Wasatch was under threat from a nearby urban population. The water it provides and the habitat therein now has more protection from those threats. Unfortunately because of the contentious namesake that is “national monument” especially in Utah, it is unlikely that the Wasatch will be named one.

  Surely a “national recreation area” would be the other side of the spectrum as it would uphold the tourism industry. Other areas that are recreation designations are places like Lake Powell or Flaming Gorge. These lands have been extremely altered for human gains. As MA is underway in this decision it looks like the designation will be a “conservation and recreation” area. So, hopefully when the bill goes through the MA board remembers their goal to limit large-scale development and the recreation side of the containers’ name is not a blank check for the tourism agency. Once it goes through the mountains will have national protection that is higher than their current standing as simply U.S. Forest Service land.

Other regions of the world have used this tactic to preserve open space and sustain the resource. Harvey Locke’s work in Banff has done just what this section of the Mountain Accord aims to do. He with a cross-disciplinary group in that community have been able to stop large scale development to preserve the values that they know draw people to the area. These protections they fought for and won work to protect the region in perpetuity, a goal the resonates with the MA’s want for sustainability. Locke writes, “protected areas are a public good often explicitly dedicated by law to the current citizenry and to future citizens yet unborn. Governments hold them in trust for civil society.” While we may not have a national park in the Wasatch as they do in Banff, policy makers can create a designation that will draw similar and tailored boundaries that will sustain the region forever.

Mountain Accord states repeatedly in the document the Wasatch’s conservation package will rein in the resort development. Once the board has agreed upon the land exchanges and the different bartering chips that state and the resorts will receive, this container will be put into place. Through a designation like a national monument the legislation managers would “aid in protecting our watershed, prevent development in sensitive areas, connect wildlife corridors and bolster an economy” through providing the mountains with better protections and resources. Either a national monument or conservation area would help restore and manage the mountains and watershed. The wildlands would be protected, and the package would uphold the reasons why people like to visit the Wasatch, in turn helping the economy. These federal actions would attain all of the goals that MA has set out to do, and in turn align the Wasatch with the land ethics that have should be used to govern America’s open space.

This is where the history of the American lands goes from a story to a reality. The managing agencies that exist have more than one hundred years of protecting places because of “resources.” This is why Pinchot came to Utah in 1905, the recognition that human life is connected to well preserved wildlands and integral in sustainability. This is why Abbey and Williams wrote so passionately about open space. MA can use this designation to protect all of the values that it outlines through its beliefs. What good is the history of the American land if a document like MA chooses to ignore them? The land designation can, and should protect the land for a magnitude of reasons. This will only happen if people make a strong voice for it and why, and if MA is true to its Recitals in that it wants to protect the resilience of the Wasatch. Management of the Wasatch has stepped out of the conservation/ preservation dichotomy, it has tipped to a full utilitarian and economic driver, the designation would hopefully bring it back.

An inclusive conservation package coupled with restorative action and urban centered transit could effectively stop our sprawling growth, create a better user experience, and nourish both human and natural systems in the mountains. In these sections and strategies we have seen a multi-agency body uphold wildlands and ecosystems above the other attributes in the mountains. Not only that but it recognizes how interconnected the issues are and how a solution to the overuse must address them together. To understand how we as people will continue to use, and ultimately better our experience in the mountains we must look at transportation opportunities that the MA presents.


At the core of this conversation around use of the Wasatch is that by 2050 Utah’s population is projected to jump from one million to two-and-a-half million new citizens. A large percentage of these new Utahns will live along the Wasatch Front. This will have an impact on the resorts and the mountains in many ways, but the primary concern when it comes to human experience and the effect on the land is that of transportation. How will people move from the city centers to the recreation centers without causing huge traffic issues or harming the environment and air? How can we maintain a functional ecosystem as well as cater to increasing millions of annual visits? Through working with the Utah Department of Transit and the resorts, Mountain Accord hopes to answer these questions. The upshot of the transit component is that the MA wants to allow for more people to get into the mountains. A truly preservation-based management strategy would perhaps look at the idea of limiting use. Because of this, and the strategy of instead adding “more” people would cater to “wise-use” conservation. As such, it is clear that the way they instead want to mitigate the transit impact in the Wasatch is through using “nodes.”

A node is a term that is used when planning any type of recreation area. These are places like picnic areas, campsites, or a point of interest. They are a hub to attract the general public to a certain location. That location will be built to take a higher impact, it will cater to many users. A good example is that of the national parks. They are arranged in such a way that a majority of the users can explore, take in sights, and easily access without dispersing on the landscape in such a way that creates degradation. Think about Arches or Yosemite, people know their place in those areas. In many cases, there is also “dispersed use” but those users should have enough education or access to information to experience wild lands outside of the nodal areas. Even though this would bring more people into the mountains, it would ideally do so in a way that wouldn’t negatively effect land.

The nodes in the Salt Lake Valley and in Park City have been identified by Mountain Accord. These are specific places that people are already impacting and gather in high numbers. The airport, downtown SLC, the University, Park City, the resorts, and certain trail heads are our nodes that need better connectivity. The hope is that through an efficient transportation model human and vehicle traffic will “create transportation connections between the economic and population centers in the urban areas and the recreation destinations in the Central Wasatch Mountains that support the environmental, recreation, and economic goal of the Accord and serve residents, employees, and visitors. Such transportation connections should increase transit use, walking, and biking and decrease single-occupancy vehicle use.” What this is telling readers is that the Mountain Accord hopes to use the existing facilities we have in the city, like Trax (the Salt Lake public train system) and progressive bussing to link the mountains more effectively with urban lives. This takes pressure off the Wasatch by reducing car traffic and not resorting to “ski links” (chairlift connections). It would help to cut down on single car drivers, which would in turn have a positive effect on the air quality. This solution would also create a better user experience by cutting down on canyon traffic. Using these pre-existing nodes gives a pragmatic and optimistic step for reducing the problem of traffic in the canyon. Better bussing, a car toll, and the addition of a lane in the canyons would help reduce much of the problem users are currently experiencing. Another option would be that of a train. This option has been identified as a more invasive one as planners would have to keep the road as well as build secondary infrastructure for the train. As this would disturb the creek and dispersed recreation use, the train would not be in line with the observed goals of Mountain Accord.

While the city has much of the public transportation infrastructure in place, there would have to be some changes to schedules, routes, and accessibility. Realistically, to incentivize use, Trax and the busses would need more accessible routes from the nodal zones directly to the Cottonwood Canyons neighborhoods.

Clean burning, fast, and frequent busses would then need to be diligent in transporting users to and from resorts and parking areas. These busses would not be like the current Cottonwood Canyon UTA busses, they would have different schedules and different speeds that would still make them convenient for recreation. Because this theory would toll single occupancy vehicles, it would take a shift in how users understand personal transit. Similar to Western understanding of land in general this would be a big change but once it has been established, this model would be the baseline. People will adapt. This shift in perception and action is asking a lot from resort patrons but it will be necessary considering the growth the city and mountains are going to experience. This transition to an efficient and incentivized bussing pattern may not “limit use” but it could limit automobile traffic. Fewer cars would strengthen air quality and the watershed. This solution would only break ground in areas already affected by humans and take advantage of many amenities that exist within the city.

If the MA is able to create transit solutions in the Wasatch that do not break new ground, it is able to maintain the fragile habitats that exist. The MA will ask city planners to use harden infrastructure in areas where the mountains have already been subject to development. When observing the Wasatch and their grandeur it is understood that the reason people like to experience them is because of the feeling that Muir had in Hetch Hetchy or Thoreau on Ktaddan. People feel connected to a greater power. They see nuanced beauty of nature and it stokes an internal fire of wildness that lives within us all. There is a connection to the place. To sustain this feeling, managers must sustain the quality of the place. A logical transit system will do this for the Wasatch. People do not want to see more human influence on the alpine. To give them and future generations this opportunity to connect with a place, perhaps as a society we can continue to combat some of the larger environmental crisis that face our planet.

The understanding that people want to preserve the resources is seen on page 11 where signers hold a “mutual preference for alternatives that connect to the existing regional public transportation system, and that incentivize public transit, walking, and biking to and in the Cottonwood Canyons.” This strategy will preserve the ecosystem and the watershed as well as create for an easier user experience. Ideally better connected city nodes to the regions of the mountains that the majority of travelers want to visit would help to sustain the resource.

There will be a new development in transit, and I am hopeful the MA will do it in a way that utilizes current infrastructure. The MA states that it hopes to “limit additional mountain development in the Cottonwood Canyons to clustered nodes within existing disturbed areas at the bases of the existing ski areas.” With its aims to “encourage development patterns that reduce sprawl and preserve open space, sensitive environments, community character, and quality of life in the mountains,” there is an nice balance of Pinchot and Leopold’s voices resonating among this element of the document. The MA not only wants to find ways to let the people access the mountains, it wants to do so in a smart, low impact manner.

The transit solutions using the concept of nodes could help managers restore and harden high-use areas in the Wasatch. Take for example the White Pine Trail Head, where I began my camping trip. This parking area is commonly over-flowing onto the road, by incorporating a better bus route to and from this destination managers could reduce the amount of overflow parking. Making the access easier will also make the user experience better, reduce road traffic and help maintain clean air and water.

The problem herein is that of the resorts’ wants for transportation outside of MA. It is still, even after years of fighting with NGO’s and the city, their goal to link resorts with arduous chairlifts over many areas of public land. The resorts see the only way to stay competitive in the industry as using new chairlifts to answer the transportation questions. Ski Utah president Nathan Rafferty suggested in an interview that the mountains were in need of an “update.” He said, “We have an incredible product here, why would you want to change it? Well, I thought that about my iPhone 3 too, but things improve.” This metaphor is human’s innate disconnected relationship with the natural world. If decision makers think of a mountain range like it is a piece of technology or a “product,” then it is simply a tool that serves humankind. Certainly Salt Lake needs the mountains to survive, but they are not a manmade tool in need of an update. If people want to continue to access them, managers must do it in a way that perceives them as an entity that deserves a lesser development model. Building a more efficient transit system in areas that are already impacted is following this conservation minded plan. Adding new lifts in areas that are currently wild will not benefit the mountains or the common skier. A transit solution like more efficient bussing would upgrade the mountains access as well as preserving other non-human values. A model that looks to market the environment for financial gains does not. It continues the idea of a “working landscape.”

Once the MA has laid out the plans for transit and its continued preservation minded dialogue, it dives into how it actually hopes to achieve some of the goals. As this essay stated earlier, the MA seeks to gain large areas of private land that it will put into a conservation package. This means deals with the ski resorts and with that, the MA document begins to use language akin to that of Rafferty and certainly less optimistic for an environmentally sustainable future. In the next section this essay investigates exactly what the resorts are still asking for from the land-swaps and see what plans some of them have outside of Mountain Accord.


Since the 1980s and the pushback on the resorts from local organizations and the Salt Lake County, there have often been compromises. A resort will help protect something “over there” for the rights to develop “over here.” Snowbird owns Mount Superior and has suggested various development goals for the land. They wanted to build an alpine roller-coaster down the ridge but were met with great opposition. Instead they came to an agreement on a coaster on the ski trails under the tram. This happens almost every winter, be it a realignment of a chairlift, a new restaurant or any number of other ideas. One at a time these piecemeal projects are proposed and bartered for until there is a middle ground reached. This middle ground is often somewhere between what the resorts want and what the county and advocacy groups deem as acceptable for the watershed and environment. If these groups were not in place, the resorts would have unrestrained ability to develop like the mining operations of old. Some like skier Andrew McLean would say that “we have already compromised enough” and that the resorts have what they need. At the very least they can keep future development in their current boundaries, indeed this is what MA promises. The issue becomes more complicated when we take into account how much land the resorts own that is not in their current boundaries. This is a problem that Mountain Accord hopes to solve with the land swaps and conservation area. The bargains that are outlined are land swaps between the U.S. Forest Service and the resort companies. The land that citizens would gain is mostly upper elevation, high backcountry use, and watershed areas. These are also riparian areas that have degraded and unmarked trails and old mine infrastructure that need the restoration this essay has discussed. The land that the resorts would gain are comparably much smaller parcels. These acreage numbers are balanced out by water and building rights at the areas bases. It would give the ski resorts more control over their bases, and allow them to develop within reason. They would essentially have the means to control the nodes where most of their patrons are spending a large majority of their off-ski time. There could also be some partial monetary payment from the U.S. Forest Service and Salt Lake County if the Mountain Accord process deems it necessary.

These swaps are a pragmatic step toward finding the balance the Mountain Accord preaches in its Recitals and Intended Outcomes sections. The pristine areas of the Central Wasatch would remain undeveloped and the resorts would be given the ability to reinforce their facilities and improve parking. Most of the land that is owned by the resorts that is outside of their boundaries has been pieced together over years. It is largely old mining rights that they have purchased for almost nothing because of its degradation in the wake of the busted industry. Much of these lands are popular four season recreation areas and as such are in need of a facelift. This facelift would be possible through the added resources the federal container would apply to the newly acquired public land. To rehabilitate the alpine or riparian areas that have been neglected under resort management for decades the watershed and ecosystems would be flourish. It would again reinforce the qualities that Pinchot saw in the mountains a century ago. There would also ideally be better trailheads and trails for recreationists of all sorts. This strategy leads to the goals of sustainability through Land Ethic and conservation the MA speaks of over and over.

These bargains however are where the MA becomes less optimistic and certainly more ambiguous in terms of its wording. The asks of the resorts as well as the realities of what they are doing outside of the MA provide insight into a different approach to the future of the mountains. In the document, for example, Alta will only trade their lands in Grizzly Gulch if there is a connection between Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons as read in a parenthetical statement in section 3.4.3. The embedded bullet point suggests that “a tunnel or other type of connection” is necessary. This continues to follow the narrative that the resorts have been operating on for 30 years; they must put more invasive structures to make their bottomline. The development would both set a precedent that we need continued human influence in the alpine as well as incentivize more automobile traffic. As far as improving the skier experience it is unclear who would actually benefit besides those that market it. A skier can spend an entire lifetime at any of the amazing resorts in the Wasatch and not have seen it all.

Alta’s transit asks go on to say that if they are not met Mountain Accord will work instead with the Town of Alta over Alta Chairlift Company. That is to say, there will still be a transit solution like bussing up canyon but no land swaps for parcels of degraded land and pristine wild areas. The town could gain better bussing while still holding on to their undeveloped regions that have been identified as a prime linkage points for Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. This exemplifies the double sided nature of many of the plans with the resorts. Because there is no strict guideline or regulation in the MA besides the flowery words of preservation, Alta is still in control of the situation. Even as I have been working on this essay, Alta has submitted a plan to the Forest Service for huge upgrades, overhauls, and new chairlifts and while they are not in Grizzly Gulch there is nothing stopping them from asking for those developments as well.

Another bargain that has come out from Mountain Accord and brought a resort’s wants to the table is that of Snowbird in American Fork. The company wanted to swap their land holdings on Mount Superior and Flagstaff for more base rights. As a last minute deal they added a 416 acre parcel in Utah County. This would have given them contiguous land ownership to Tibble Fork Reservoir and the potential for another base area. This was outside of the MA “boundary” which ends on the Little Cottonwood Ridge, so it was removed from the agreements. But, as of January 2016, Snowbird will continue to develop into Mary Ellen Gulch in American Fork Canyon regardless of local opposition. These chairlifts signify the limitless expansion that the resorts have had over the years. More chairlifts have consistently opened the door for more development such as condos, lodges, or restaurants. Base area concepts and tram connections from much further down American Fork connecting the road to the Little Cottonwood ridge have also been in the works. Since 2014 county officials have funded some of these bigger plans that would again cross public land with private interests. Once again, as I have been working on this thesis this very spring I have seen Utah Country “ok” their asks for new development in high alpine watershed areas.

Projects like these are certainly continuing the pattern of unregulated utilitarianism. Even conservationist Pinchot would see through them as economic drivers. This is partially because of the international ski industry in general. All over the world, and especially in North America resorts are constantly trying to be the biggest. Snowbird has been shut down from developing north across the road because of Salt Lake citizens and organizations diligence, so they have elected to go south into Utah County. They want to be able to claim more acreage on their websites and in their marketing material because that is the current metric for how “good” a ski area is. This is seen nowhere more than over the Park City ridgeline into the resort powerhouses that are Vail Resorts and Talisker.

These two agencies have held massive power over the ski industry in Utah for years. The companies split ownership and management of the resorts that make up much of the Park City ski experience. While the general managers of the resorts are working with Mountain Accord, none of the presidents or CEOs from these distant companies are present. Talisker, a multi-national Canadian development firm has been buying up parcels on and around the resorts for several years. This year they and Vail finished their acquisition of Park City and Canyons resorts and with a 50 million dollar investment connected and have the largest resort in the nation. They created “One Park City” again in the timeframe that I have been working on this project. Other resorts in Utah and elsewhere want this “big” claim so the outdated model is continued through brash marketing decisions on a very short and shortsighted timeline. 

Similarly with Vail’s construction of a super-resort, Ski Utah continues, even as they have been part of MA, to perpetuate the need for the OneWasatch link. The link would effectively connect all seven (six) of the central Wasatch resorts via chairlift. There have been many articles and voices against these invasive and gimmicky moves. Jeff Neirmeyer former director of the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities says “It still has the potential to draw a bunch of development into these canyons,” adding, “I am not willing to trade watershed protection for ‘wow’ factor.” This is just one reason why the ONE concept is not in line with the goals of MA. Nathan Rafferty from Ski Utah is on the Mountain Accord Board. It’s important to read into his position. His (Ski Utah’s) plan may in many ways just be a position similar to that of Save Our Canyons national monument. ONE Wasatch is still in play because they want to keep their human-centric values upheld whereas SOC wants their preservation values to stay relevant.

Undoubtedly some bargains will be made. The resorts are not going to give over private land holdings for nothing, they need something in return. The hope is that they will do so in a manner that does not require those areas to become more developed than they are now, and in time they will be restored to an even more “natural” state. While it seems like this is the hope of the MA, it is impossible to know whether the resorts and tourism agencies will hold back on their plans. If they do not, there is no way to hold them accountable as the MA is not legally binding. This is perhaps the most disconcerting fact of the MA; the resorts have been pushed to expose their wants and in doing so, they have started to actually make some of the developments they have put out. Perhaps when read through with this lens the MA has actually exacerbated some of the large-scale developments.

Takeaways from the Accord

The ski industry’s plans are coming at a time when a body of stakeholders from many sections of the public and private spheres have worked together for the last two years and have concluded that large development projects do not fit the MA’s goals. This is an uncomfortable reality of MA; the people who sit on the board still are pushing for antithetical goals before the large-scale environmental assessments or transit goals can be crafted. If Ski Utah and the developers were serious about their involvement perhaps they would put their projects on hold until the rest of the work was complete. Perhaps in many ways they are able to sell their presence as conservation work. Like the old white conservatives hoping to “reclaim” Utah’s public land, they want to conserve the resource for their version of economic sustainability. Most of the resorts also do “environmental stewardship” that is seen in many different forms. Similarly to their activity on Mountain Accord though, it seems more likely that it is about appearance instead of multi-ethical projects.

Throughout history we have seen boom and bust cycles use up a resource. From timber to gold to oil and gas, Western society has traditionally struggled to sustain the resources it needs to survive. This is why Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, and Theodore Roosevelt worked together to create the U.S Forest Service, the Park Service, and the ideology spectrum they fostered. They pushed for at least wise use and at most intrinsic value preservation. But society has once again moved away from these management strategies. This is nowhere more clear than in Utah and with the Wasatch ski industry. The very “thing” that cradles and sustains the ski industry is being depleted. The place that draws people here is having its wilderness values removed. The industry sees this threat and the threat of a growing population and their answer continues to be “more.” It needs to spend more money on more stuff that people will then spend money on.

Like mining, this is a facade of sustainability because it only works for a finite time, until the resource the money is spent on is gone. If the ski industry and the Mountain Accord as a whole were serious about their commitment to sustainability they would take progressive and binding steps to restrict the resorts to their boundaries now and to use the Land Ethic when looking at future developments in impacted areas. These arguments and compromises have already taken place. Pinchot and Muir proved over a century ago that a balance must be struck. Leopold’s Land Ethic blossomed from that work and over the course of the last 50 years Utah and the Wasatch have grown into areas where the citizens want decision makers to uphold intrinsic and less human-centric values. The wording is in the document, but now the land needs legal protection. This is imperative for sustainability. 

The Mountain Accord will next go through the National Environmental Protection Agency process which will include an Environmental Impact Study. This EIS, I have been told by Forest Service employees, could cost more than a billion dollars and take upwards of a decade. With Mountain Accord and the prospect of an EIS, the developers have ramped up their efforts.  Snowbird’s new chairs are going in next year. Vail’s project is well underway with the completion of a new lift this year between Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort (now One Park City) and plans for new condos. OneWasatch is always looming. The EIS and NEPA process will probably come back with the findings the region cannot sustain anymore built infrastructure. By the time those findings are turned into law many of these big projects on the horizon will be completed.

Instead of these tourism driven projects, managers should listen to the wants of the people. Through past studies a majority of voices speak out for restoration and conservation. These steps can be attained by some of the intended outcomes in Mountain Accord, namely; new bussing strategies, incentivized carpooling and mass transit for the transportation. For the resorts and recreation hardening the resource in dispersed use areas and upgrading and consolidating base areas would be necessary. To restore degraded lands closures and rehabilitation would take place, and stricter more focused regulation would be given to high-traffic areas. These goals and more can be attained through the funding and personnel a federal designation would provide. They would ultimately sustain the resource, and in time, pay off in the form of dollars as well as being strong environmental ethic.


Still Hiking

Over the course of my weekend in the mountains my girlfriend Anna and two buddies, Alex and James, visited me. Anna came on the second day with a loaf of banana bread and the ambition to explore the White Pine drainage. White Pine Lake is directly west of Snowbird and surrounded by craggy steep mountains. We skinned up the river that flows from that high alpine lake. The morning sun was starting to warm the crispy snow that had frozen the night before. We followed a faint, icy skin track that was had a fresh print of a lone dog along it, perhaps a young coyote. We followed the dog for a while until we saw its feet slipping and realized it was too steep for us as well. We skied down the slope into the gully. There were moonlike rolls in the snow. From steep trees it tumbled down into the river valley that flowed, now frozen, from the lake. We could see the American Fork twins and ridge separating us from Gad Valley, the western boundary of Snowbird. We had the basin to ourselves and we picked our way down through the “good” snow and the gentle slopes of the trees. The skiing wasn’t great but it was another sunny spring day and we were glad to be there together.

When she left, I skinned back up to my camp. Clouds moved overhead. It became the weekend and more people hiked into the mountains. I ate banana bread and re-applied sunscreen. I melted snow in a silver aluminum pot and drank the water it produced. It was nice to feel these things nourish me, to enjoy every bite of food and sip of water. I skied short runs above my tent, swishing through snow in the shade that had not been affected by the sun. I said “hi” to funny groups of tourers I saw. Old guys smoked small glass bowls of weed. Solitary ball-cap wearing millennials ripped up the skin track. Elderly ladies chatted and laughed together.

I read Galvin and drank black tea. His antagonist was buying up land and selling off property to developers. The caffeine zipped through my veins and I was angry for the cowboys. I felt like a cowboy, alone at camp. I gazed at the mountains and thought about my project here at the U. I often looked at the mountains from the city. I kept them in the back of my head at all times. I always knew that it was only a matter of time until I would be able to get back to them. These thoughts came and went like the breeze, slowly but apparent none-the-less. I boiled some more snow. I waited for the little fish-eye bubbles to form on the bottom of the saucepan then I steadily poured the water into my bottle. I gulped down the warm water.

When I got tired I napped in my tent, face down with my orange ski boots still cinched on my feet. The door flap fluttered, but the wind was pleasant. The afternoon felt warm with me bundled in my ski gear.

Around sundown my friends joined me in the mountain home. I proudly showed them the little place I had built in the snow. They laid down their bedrolls next to my own in the tent. They started making their dinners and as their bodies slowed down after their own skin up, they became quickly aware of the cold.

“You’ll get used to it,” I said. “Put on your warmest gloves.” I laughed because it was much warmer than the night before. They had no idea what real pain was!

We passed around a bottle of Jack Daniels and told stories in the dark. James and I planned a big day for the morning. A pre-sunrise wake up was required but we stayed up late anyway.

As the stars grew brighter Alex and I went up to the top of the ridge to get a good view of the Pfeiff. We wanted to snap some photos. I saw the mountain, and sitting above it were three bright, aligned stars. They fit perfectly on top of the triangular peak like a little shimmering hat. I was in awe of the symmetry and didn’t take my camera out, just watched in slack-jawed disbelief. As we stood there, the world turned and the stars moved away from the mountain, back into the swirl of ambiguity that was the universe above.

The next day we walked all over the Hogum and Maybird drainages, looking for something to ski. Graupel and rapid heating kept us guessing and we bailed on our original objective. But, the snow was colder than we thought and it might have just been our desire to keep walking around, seeing new areas without having to commit to an arduous hike in a narrow chute. So we wandered. We went down into Hogum. We saw giant granite spires, long and steep couloirs, forests across the canyon that looked like textured etchings. We skied through dimpled basins, spotted with lichen covered boulders. The frozen texture of the place was Arctic and astonishing, so far from home and yet as the raven flies, so close.

Around midday we popped back over the dirty little climb that was Small Pass into Maybird gulch and saw a skin track up the Red Pine saddle: easy access to the Pfeifferhorn’s east ridge. James and I started drooling. “Let’s just go see,” we said. The day was getting on. We punched the skin track across the meadow below the Pfeiff and up to the steepening section of the Red Pine pass.

As the switchbacking grew more difficult, each turn used up dwindling energy to carefully plan out: plant a pole, stomp the uphill ski up always further than seems necessary, stomp the downhill ski out the other direction. In this awkward v-shaped stance, stay strong on the heels. Then, while cranking weight onto the poles, kick the awkward ski out from its nest behind and bring the heel up to the butt, freeing the ski from the foot. It, theoretically, then easily swings through the air from the toe for a second. It is in this swinging moment that one thinks, “I’m going to blow it.” But you don’t, and the ski is placed down gently next to its mate. Then, skin straight until the track is too steep, and repeat the switchback procedure.

In my switchbacks I had to pay attention of each edge making contact with the snow. I had to be aware of my downward force on my ski pole into the snow. I had to listen the sounds the snow was making. I needed to breathe. It is in moments like that the body is doing what it was made to do. My body, mind, and the land around it were in unison. 

As the hike steepens this process becomes harder and eventually my skis came off. I threw them over my shoulder and started booting my toes into the styrofoam snow, punching stairs into the side of the mountain. This stairway took me all the way to the little lip of steep snow that separated me from the saddle. I took a deep breath and mantled my weight up out of the steeps.

I topped out and stood up. I gazed out south, down into Utah County. I could see Snowbird, Mount Baldy, White Baldy Red Baldy, The Twins, Timpanogos Massif, Box Elder Peak, Mount Nebo, and the Pfeiff. Back behind and to the West and North I could see Thunder Ridge, the Hogback, The Little Cottonwood Ridge, Mount Superior and all the way down to Salt Lake and beyond out into the Great Basin. I could see everything. All areas I knew of, and many I knew well. I thought of American Fork, a relatively undeveloped canyon that was in Snowbird’s crosshairs. I thought of Timp and Nebo, I wanted to climb them.

The east face of the Pfeiff was baking in the sun so we decided not to go all the way up. Instead we skied a line off its shoulder that required down-climbing and exciting exposure. James went first and shushed some slough off of a little spine, then ripped down a chute into the apron below. My legs were tired and I was gripped from the ridge line so I just pointed it down another chute surrounded by granite. I made four fast wide turns then pointed my skis straight down the hill. I moved quickly out from the shadow of the mountain.


A New Perspective

In not summiting the Pfeifferhorn I was inspired to stay active. It was a reason to stay keep exploring. The views of everything: the ravens, the evergreens around my camp, and the grand vistas from the high ridges and peaks let my mind explore. They give life to imagination. It all provides creative sustenance. This is why I put myself in high places, to remember that there is more out there. I do it to help me recognize the wild in all aspects of life: at home and in the mountains. I also realize there are some places I will never know, never access. Also though, part of experiencing the world is realizing that unknown is healthy. Those places can be left to themselves, to the wild, to the animals, and to others who brave their landscapes for their own reasons. Some places can be left alone, others are important for us as humans to access and enjoy.

The Euro-American mentality has created a system wherein it believes people are apart from this natural world, when in fact they are linked. There is no buffer between us. It is a single overlapping circle of vitality that is shared place through strong land ethics. I feel this connection spending time in the Wasatch as it “destabilizes the separation between human self and wild other.” Like the raven, I am able to travel between the human built world and the natural. The bravest work that can be done is to help society bridge our world and the wild. We have an effect on natural systems, and they on us. Hiking around in the wilderness helps me see this, and I hope it will help others in the future. I spent time living in the watershed people will drink. I lived among animals. The “high quality of life” the Mountain Accord champions is made up of these things. Decision makers must act to preserve the places people access. If they do not and if we do not protect what is left, all life and land will suffer much worse from the changes already felt and the change that is undoubtedly coming. In this moment we must act with grace and with care to not destroy the last wildness in the Wasatch. Let’s use the coming decisions as a message that people care about the climate and the environment.

My hope in writing this thesis is for people from all walks of life to stay diligent, to not get complacent. In the next stage of Mountain Accord, the Mountainous Planning District, the EIS, or the American Fork decisions, people must make a strong statement to protect the last wild space that exists. These areas are not corporate America’s belongings. They belong to greater entities than humans, and in these hours of environmental crisis it is time to stand alongside them, not apart from them. Wild lands do not have words. Advocates for justice must be their voice. This work has been done, from Native American ideology to Gifford Pinchot to Terry Tempest Williams. The history has a strong backbone of powerful messages that lead to less human-build development in the natural environment. Let’s carry that message forward now and not develop lands for the sake of short-term economic gain. Let us include the land in our ethical responsibility. Let us set a path for our children and grandchildren that allows them to experience the world in a better state than we found it. The time is now and the action is in the Wasatch Mountains, right outside the window.

What is the West? The West is the past and it is the future. The West is the place that cradles all of our stories. The West is a mentality. It is an ecosystem. It is water and it is drought. It is the trees. It is the inspiration that propels us through life. The West and the wildness it harbors is a privilege. The West is the Wasatch. To protect the landscapes that are innately the West is to nourish a quality of life that teeters on the brink of extinction. If strong precedents are set we can keep this land in its natural state for all the reasons it should be natural. I am hopeful that in the future people will be able to connect to a place and understand why that is important to do so. I am hopeful for a world where we do not act like we are masters, instead we become part of the wild that is all around us.


Methods for completion of “A Wasatch Voice”

Documentary film


Close reading/ literary critique

Personal experience and reflection


Land Ethic application


The theory behind “A Wasatch Voice” is that through putting the human in the same set of values as the land, Western culture will be able to rethink its relationship to nature. I did this here in the Wasatch by understanding the history of the place, the future of it, and my connection to it.

The want to explore this tension stemmed from a long personal history skiing in and enjoying wildness. I have spent two decades traveling from simple recreationist to advocate for strong land ethics. The method for pursuing this endeavor is as complicated as my own longevity with the issues. Recently though I have embraced these complications and worked with Environmental Humanities and local NGO’s that have helped to inform my theory.

In order to try and break it down so that perhaps someone else can do similar project, say one that looks at Bears Ears or Glen Canyon, I will explain the method for getting my project completed.


The essay began as a much smaller component to the project as a whole. The video was to be the “bigger” of the two because it was going to require more learning from me as well as hopefully become a public outreach piece. Once I began the essay though it became clear that I could not make it small. The histories are too interesting and interconnected.

But I did not begin the writing with the history. I wanted to start somewhere that I knew I could because I had been doing work around it for six months with Save Our Canyons and in my Parks, Rec, and Tourism classes. I wanted to assess the ideology in Mountain Accord. I wanted to see what tools the MA was going to provide us with for environmental ethic and sustainability. At first the Mountain Accord essay was looking solely at the preservation vs. conservation dialogue. It leaned too heavily on Muir. I sent it off and began on the history.

The history was the place I should have began as it really helped to frame the entire conversation. I couldn’t discuss what I wanted to in Mountain Accord without that longevity of preservation and land ethic in America and in the West. The history provided me with this. I uncovered many interesting things about the Wasatch specifically that bridged the gap between these histories and MA and what future it might bring. Rewriting the MA component was necessary after the history essay had been written.

To understand the land designation is to understand what will “happen” to Wasatch land management. My argument is that the highest level of protection, like that of a national monument, is needed. It can be gained through citizens being strong advocates for said land. Through my historical framework and its application to the MA, federal designation is the only thing in the nation or abroad that has protected land from unrestrained economic development.

I knew from the beginning that I was going to have to address my own personal bias and connection to the mountains. I elected to do this through braiding personal narrative into my history and close reading. Through my work in Environmental Humanities I believe that stories are a way to effectively communicate these hard issues. This piece is able to make a relatively dry essay of history and literary critique more interesting for a reader that is not an academic. Indeed, this issue of communicating the importance of the arduous federal language and reading through technical management strategies can be difficult. By using personal narrative I wanted to mitigate that.

Interview and Video

As I am not an expert in any field that speaks directly to Wasatch preservation I wanted to interview a wide variety of professionals that work on land, wildlife, water, recreation, and advocacy. These interviews were the strongest part of my project in my opinion and would not have been possible without the connections and guidance from my committee and Save Our Canyons. Creating a list of interviewees that crosses many disciplines is a must. My video is lacking the economic voice, and perhaps with more time and resources I would have been able to engage someone from the tourism industry. I also would like to have been able to speak to a larger demographic than I currently show in the video.

Film as a medium has emerged as the method for communicating environmental issues. Two other videos in recent years have dealt directly with ski resort development and many others speak of similar issues in the West and elsewhere in the world. An effective distribution of the video will be necessary and I will work with all interested parties in creating a dissemination plan that reaches people in Utah that will be curious about the work. These constituencies I believe will be mostly people that are already interested in the Wasatch in some facility. I hope that if they are not on the side of preservation it will move them there and if they are already are they will act upon those notions.

Potentially some of the interviews could be reworked to cater to a larger crowd. This would be ideal because the issue of land preservation specifically here in the Wasatch and elsewhere in the state should be a concern of all people. No matter what creed, ethnicity, political, or ideological set one prescribes to these big economic-driven plans plans will not benefit them or their children. Shortsighted development will always be the tool of the wealthy one-percent to degrade land for privatized gains and public loss of resources. Film can communicate this immediacy in an efficient manner and my advocacy effort does this for the sake of the Wasatch Mountains.


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