Letting It Be

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, August 1999

Letting It Be
She moved hearts, minds, and mountains

The Importance of Being Ornery
Living the life, monkeywrenching around, and remembering to stay pissed

A kind of ambulatory shroud of turin from the holy days of monkeywrenching, Ken Sleight, now 69, watched Glen Canyon fill up with the backwash of the Colorado River in the antediluvial 1960s: "A heartbreaker that made an environmentalist out of me," the Utah guide recalls. But not an outlaw, at least until the late Edward Abbey introduced him to the enticing notion of offing Glen Canyon Dam. An old-time Mormon, Sleight turned his back on his ranching roots for a life of river-running and canyon-rambling. He met the author of in the early 1970s at Lee's Ferry on the lower Colorado, where Sleight was packing a raft. "We drank beer and talked till three in the morning about how to get rid of the dam," he remembers with raspy fondness. "Ed said, 'We've got to get somebody to do it.'"

Somebodies, actually. Several of Abbey's intimates became characters in his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, fictional heroes to the decidedly nonfictional founders of Earth First! and other disaffected environmental groups. Cast as the dashing Seldom Seen Smith ("Ed remembered I had a woman on my arm at our first meeting"), Sleight admits to no actual monkeywrenching—such claims can lead to prosecution, statutes of limitations notwithstanding. But he continues to rail against the assorted demons of the arid West, fostering opposition to mining, grazing, development, and nuclear waste. In 1990 he tried to subvert the Utah House of Representatives by running for office, and lost; now he provides a graybeard's gadfly perspective to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and runs horse-pack rides out of his Pack Creek Ranch near Moab.

Sleight sounds like he's channeling Abbey when he decries canyonland chic. "The tourists are gonna be worse than the mines and the cattle," he rants. "They're gonna need roads, toilets, gas stations." True enough: In the twilight of the rimrock guerrilla, campgrounds and Slurpees continue their march toward Escalante­Grand Staircase National Monument, and Glen Canyon Dam still stands. Does this mean abandoning the old ethic? "Oh, no," says Sleight, coy as ever. "As Ed always said, 'The ages will take care of it.'"

On December 7, 1960, Mardy Murie burst through the front door of her Moose, Wyoming, ranch house, waving a telegram at her husband, Olaus. "He read it and took me in his arms and we both wept," she recalls. The day before, Interior Secretary Fred A. Seaton had established what would come to be known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Four years earlier, Mardy accompanied Olaus, a wildlife biologist who was then director of the Wilderness Society, on a three-month research trip to Alaska's Sheenjek River Valley, an ecological jewel embraced by the peaks of the Brooks Range and part of a nine-million acre wilderness threatened by mining interests. As she wrote in her journal, which would become part of her classic 1962 memoir, Two in the Far North, they were greeted by grizzlies, caribou, and wolves—"the Arctic in its unbelievably accelerated summer life."

The creation of the Refuge was the pinnacle of the Muries' collaboration and the beginning of Mardy's unabashedly emotional activism. "Her commitment to relationships, both personal and wild," Terry Tempest Williams recently wrote, "has fed, fueled, and inspired an entire conservation movement."

Born in Seattle and raised in territorial Fairbanks, Margaret "Mardy" Thomas was the first woman to graduate from the University of Alaska, in 1924. A few months later, she and Olaus honeymooned along the Koyukuk River, running behind a dog team on his caribou-study expedition. In 1927, the couple moved to Jackson Hole to study elk, and lived there together until Olaus's death in 1963. The following year, President Lyndon Johnson invited Mardy to Washington to witness the signing of the Wilderness Act. In 1977, she was in Denver, successfully lobbying Congress to pass the Alaska Lands Bill. "Beauty is a resource in and of itself," she testified. "Alaska must be allowed to be Alaska: That is her greatest economy."

Last year, Bill Clinton awarded Murie the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her tireless vigilance. This fall, the documentary Arctic Dance: The Mardy Murie Story, narrated by her Wyoming neighbor Harrison Ford, will be released. She will be 98. In the film, Clinton drapes the medal around Murie's neck and asks, "We still have a lot of work to do, don't we?" To which the silver-haired lady replies, "Yes, we do."

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