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Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News
Cactus plants bloom at the West Rim in Zion National Park. People of many faiths share a spiritual appreciation for Utah's diverse wild lands.

OREM — To some people, the most spiritual places in the world aren't church buildings, synagogues, cathedrals or temples.

For Fred Smith, 50, of Salt Lake City, feeling close to God is feeling close to his creations.

"If you have ever spent a night out in the southern Utah desert, or in the mountains, sitting watching the sun go down, or seeing a deer cross the meadow, these are things that touch the soul, that make you feel good," he says.

Smith feels the most spiritual when he is walking on the cool earth of a path, softened by pine needles, meandering through the trees. Or when he is climbing a craggy peak, placing one foot after another on rocks, only to reach his goal and look out upon vast meadows of grass and wildflowers flanking an ice-blue lake. Or while trekking through the red bluffs and sands of the desert dotted with Joshua trees.

"It is a real spiritual feeling to be in a beautiful natural place," Smith says.

Other people who share Smith's spiritual appreciation for Utah's wild lands gathered last Saturday at Utah Valley State College.

The event, hosted by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, was meant to reach out to people in differing religions who share a love for wild lands. The short-term goal is to have a faith-based dialogue. The long-term goal is a brighter future for Utah's wild lands.

"Our connectedness to nature makes us connected to each other," said Deeda Seed, SUWA grassroots outreach coordinator.

About 25 people attended the event in a conference room at the UVSC Student Center. Participants sat on chairs arranged in a large circle. In the middle was a rust-red rug, topped with a burnt-orange colored fabric, covered with an assortment of rocks. In the middle, a spiky green plant — a dracaena — sprouted from a bright yellow planter.

The SUWA hosts asked for a volunteer to be the first one to participate: select a rock and hold it in your hand while you talk about your feelings, then pass it to your neighbor.

"I'm inviting us to drop into the hike together," said Terri Martin, facilitator for SUWA.

"Let's do some talking. Let's start at the beginning of the conversation," Martin said. "Why do we care? What do we hope the future of these lands will be?"

Annalisa Jensen, 33, of Provo, took the smooth round stone that was handed to her and spoke of spending summers leading kids from New York City on backpacking trips through Utah.

"I think we've got a huge treasure here that needs to be paid attention to," Jensen said.

George Handley, who teaches humanities at Brigham Young University, said he has always felt his faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has emphasized good stewardship of the land. He feels sad at the apathy — even animosity — he has seen in Utah when it comes to environmental issues.

"How can we engage, in dialogue, people who have very different points of view?" he asked.

Nelle Ward, 21, from Vermont, is a junior majoring in environmental studies and political science at the University of Utah. She said she identifies strongly with nature. "I don't identify with any religion," Ward said. "I feel nature is God."

Marsha McLean, 60, of Provo, vice chairman of Utah Valley Sierra Forum and president of Living Green in Utah Valley, is also a real estate agent and sometimes feels in contradiction of her profession.

"I love the wilderness," McLean said. "It is beyond me how those of the LDS faith can think anything else than that we are to protect it."

"There are many people who don't think animals are important or God's creations are important — it's just man who is important," she said. "I hear that a lot."

Deena Ainge, 44, of Spanish Fork, said she had a "Protect Wild Utah" sticker on her car. She went into the grocery store and came out to find someone had ripped the sticker off her car.

"They think it's some extreme environmental group," Ainge said. "It's just misunderstanding."

Ward said it's an issue of educating people. "They think these groups are of the devil," she said.

Tyler Murdock, 23, of Springville, a sophomore majoring in general studies at UVSC, said he grew up spending time with his family in the wilderness and is worried his children won't be able to see the places he has seen.

Murdock said he has had some of his most spiritual experiences in the wilderness.

"That is one of the main reasons why I feel a great desire to protect it — because I feel God has given us this land, and I feel it's our responsibility to act as stewards and protect the area he has given us," he said.

The participants in the event were organized into small groups to discuss specific issues, including:

• How can we involve communities of faith in the protection of wild lands?

• How can we involve young people in working to protect the wilderness?

Facilitators wrote down some of the statements people made and organized the sentences into theme ideas. They scrawled in forest green, purple and red markers on large pieces of paper, then drew mountains, mesas and sunbursts on the posters.

After the event, Seed said she felt "people left feeling really optimistic about what is possible."

The next step is to take the dialogue event to different sites across the state, then put the ideas derived from the groups into a presentation, she said.

For more information on SUWA's faith-based dialogue, call 428-3971 or go to www.suwa.org.

E-mail: astewart@desnews.com