A Landscape of Possibility

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1995

A Landscape of Possibility

To lose the wilderness, author Rick Bass argues, is to lose our ability to imagine
By Rick Bass

When the 104th congress reconvenes next month, its unfinished business is likely to include 22 million acres of public land in southern Utah--a trove of desert canyons, tabletop mesas, and redrock spires that's at the center of one of the decade's fiercest conservation debates. The question is how much of this enclave, currently administered by the Bureau of Land Management, will be permanently protected as wilderness. This past year, Utah's conservative congressional delegation battled for a meager 1.8-million-acre preserve in a bill that would open even that to road building, tourism development, and resource extraction. More than 80 environmental groups pushed a 5.7-million-acre bill that, not surprisingly in this Congress, went nowhere. At press time, however, it appeared likely that greens would succeed in staving off the opposition's bill until next year, in part by drawing on a growing public awareness that southern Utah's value goes far beyond dollars and cents.

To call attention to the debate, Terry Tempest Williams, naturalist-in-residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History, and Stephen Trimble, a writer and former Utah park ranger, recently commissioned Testimony, Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness, a chapbook that features work by nearly two dozen authors who know the region intimately. The essay that follows is by Rick Bass, the Montana-based author of numerous books, including The Ninemile Wolves, and The Lost Grizzlies.

You cannot convert the fragile stick nests of herons into timber oil or gas; you cannot turn the whistle of wind across ancient orange sands into dollar bills, or votes, or security. You cannot cut a road into a red rock, across a sand creek, and convert that loss into gain. This is and has always been a myth of mankind, of all countries both savage and civilized. There is a point reached in all cultures--a point of saturation--where each blade cut weakens a place, and the miracle of regeneration does not one day occur.

The explosive economic and cultural growth of the West occurs here and not in other places precisely because the land is still healthy. In such places as my home of Lincoln County, Montana, however, where the land has become unhealthy--where blade-cut saturation has not only been reached, but exceeded--now the communities and economies of both man and animal are unhealthy. The more timber we clear-cut, the poorer we get. The last of the money goes somewhere, but never to us, and in the end we have nothing left--less than nothing.

Utah is the state by which I came into the West: the place that as an artist was best for me. I learned to write and to look at the world in Texas and Mississippi--wonderful places for storytelling--but I wanted to find a land, a place, large enough to hold the feelings I held about the world, about this life we've been given. I wanted to explore what was possible, not just probable. I wanted more space in both the imagination and beneath my feet. And Utah's red wilderness and its forests had, and still have for me, the beautiful density of reality I was seeking: a density and grounding that in turn allowed my imagination to wander.

The unprotected wilderness of the West is one of our greatest strengths as a country. Another is our imagination, our tendency to think rather than to accept--to challenge, to ask why and what if, to create rather than to destroy. This questioning is a kind of wildness, a kind of strength, that many have said is peculiarly American.

Why place that strength in jeopardy? To lose Utah's wilderness would be to strip westerners and all Americans of a raw and vital piece of our soul, our identity, and our ability to imagine.

As a nation we are facing a crisis of the imagination.

I have lived and camped throughout the diminishing West--the diminishing wild Americas--and report to you that we are in a deficit condition of both wilderness and imagination, that we've taken from the land far beyond its capacity to give.

If we were talking about inflation or interest rates, I believe most members of the government would do everything in their power to shut down this arc of loss we find ourselves in. We all know that what is rare is always valuable, and wilderness is our rarest and most imperiled resource of all.

To hold on to one of the last things truly American and truly unique--a sense of place in the American West--would be an act of strength and a continued source of great power. Not the West of the Marlboro Man and Chevrolet commercials, but the creative, healthy, and untouched West: the sage and piñon, the rock and sand, the small burrowing owls, the herons. The glitter of stars on a clear small pool of water.

The print of a deer or lion in the sand, in untouched country, as you sleep--it is these things that allow you, allow us, to continue being American, rather than something else, anything else, everything else.

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