Steve Trimble

Originally from Denver, Steve Trimble has lived for many years in Salt Lake City and Torrey, Wayne County.

When he was a child his father took the family all over the western United States as part of his employment with the U.S. Geological Survey.

"By the time I was 30, I had a good feel for most of the West," said Trimble during an interview in his Avenues home. "I knew early that I wanted to work as a writer/photographer on landscape, then I started adding layers."

For several years after completing a degree from Colorado College, he was a park ranger in Arches, Capitol Reef and other Western national parks. "In those days, the National Park Service hired its resident rangers to write general interpretive booklets. I did some of that, and it led to writing natural history. Then I got a master's degree in ecology from the University of Arizona."

Then Trimble moved to Santa Fe "in the middle of Indian country and got a whole new layer of understanding," writing magazine pieces and books that emanated from his study of Indians. He married, had kids and started looking at the world through his kids' eyes. He did a collaborative work with his old friend Gary Nabhan, "The Geography of Childhood."

"I'm always ready to learn new things," Trimble said.

More recently, he collaborated with Utah naturalist Terry Tempest Williams on a book, "Testimony," written to oppose a bill in Congress that Trimble and Williams considered detrimental to wilderness.

"We assembled 20 writers with Western experience and published a chap book that we got into the hands of every member of Congress. That experience politicized my writing," Trimble said.

Trimble and Williams were also instrumental in attaining national park status for southern Utah's Grand Staircase. "President Clinton told Terry that the book made a big difference. Sens. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., and Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., actually read essays from the book into the Congressional Record. Feingold read mine and I was thrilled."

Once Trimble had a taste of the power of words, he decided he wanted to do "the highest thing I could do as a writer and compose a novel. So, I spent three years building this novel set in southern Utah during the uranium boom — and I just couldn't make it work. I was spinning to a halt when I got an assignment to photograph the old Snowbasin in 1997. I was working with a writer to do a travel story on the Snowbasin, a jewel that only locals knew about."

After hearing a number of stories about Snowbasin in the Ogden Valley, he decided there was "a book there. I didn't know how to write fiction, but I did know how to write about this. I knew this piece of writing would be complicated. It's hard to make a living writing books, but I sold photographs to magazines and source books to support me."

The result was "Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America," a literary look at the value of the land and an indictment of land czars and CEOs who were caught up in the obsession of development. Specifically, he focused on Earl Holding, one of the richest men in Utah, who wanted Snowbasin to be an Olympic venue.

Although Trimble insists he did not intend to "take on Earl Holding," Holding becomes clearly the villain of his book. "Holding drove the story," Trimble said. "He bought Snowbasin as a ski area of permit in the national forest. Then he began to buy private land around the mountain. He's a person who likes to control things. That's how he made his $5 billion, controlling hotels, oil companies and 5,000 acres of land in the West — and more of Salt Lake City than anyone except the LDS Church. He's a mover and shaker in the community."

Trimble tried hard to understand Holding's story. "I couldn't interview him. I tried really hard to set up an interview with him. I tried in every way I could think of. When I sent him letters, I worked through Holding's friends and relatives. But he had no urge to have anyone tell his story. He's famously leery of the press."

So, Trimble began thinking of Holding as "a public presence. He's not my enemy, he's my character, so I call him Earl. He certainly generated conflict for my book, representing the land trade people who are fighting against exploitation of the land. The Salt Lake Olympic Committee said we don't need to privatize land to do the Olympics. It can all be done on public lands through permit. But Earl, with his Utah congressional representatives in tow, said the opposite."

Trimble has mixed feelings about Holding, because he considers him a landowner "who loves owning the land. He loves owning it more than developing it. He has yet to build an overnight lodge at Snowbasin. He has not built a sea of condos at Sun Valley. Many people admire him for that. He also goes to extraordinary levels of quality, but he has no interest in interacting with the community. He's a very good businessman, and I have no animosity toward him," Trimble said.

According to Trimble, Holding is "diminished physically" since he suffered a stroke in 2000, but his mind remains keen. Trimble concedes that "in some ways" he saw Holding himself "as the mountain. He re-wired the innards of the mountain for snowmaking, put 22 miles of trenches and pipes for snowmaking — almost like open heart surgery. The mountain is very different from the old ski resort we knew with its clunky chairlifts and its snow glaze that hadn't seen a lot of cutting."

Trimble said that people in the area "often break into tears when they think about what has happened to Ogden Valley. They resented Earl's bypassing of the public process. The people became activists in spite of themselves. They became really engaged citizens."

Because of Trimble's giant focus on Holding, the credibility of the book suffers from the lack of an interview with him. In spite of Trimble's fine writing and careful logic based on assiduous research, the book has a bit of a hollow ring without Holding speaking for himself. It's unfortunate that Trimble could not find a way to persuade the solitary land holder to sit down and talk about his motives.

Nevertheless, Trimble's story is a compelling one, close to home, one we can understand. The author effectively cries out for better communication between environmentalists and the rural people who distrust them. Trimble quotes Jim Livermore, who heads the nature conservancy in Utah, who said, "People in Utah value open space, but they don't think there's a crisis suggesting we'll lose the space."

But, Trimble said, "There is a crisis." He argues for less road building, more education and more communication about "the things we love. We have to be less suspicious of each other. We must be willing to say there is compromise possible on both sides. I hope the conversation will be widened."

One hope Trimble maintains is that the sons of Stuart Udall and Morris Udall (both great conservationists from Arizona) are running for the U.S. Senate — Tom in New Mexico and Mark in Colorado. "These two will be great representatives for those of us who live in Utah, too, because they understand Utah."


E-mail: [email protected]