As the end of another calendar year approaches, I’ve been reflecting on the many heartfelt expressions of kindness and gratitude from family and friends over this holiday season — sentiments I share. How lucky I am to have such warm and supportive relationships.
Another reason for my gratitude at the dawn of this new year is the protected landscapes that bring me so much fulfillment.
I grew up in Washington, D.C., where my exposure to the natural world was limited to the woods in nearby Rock Creek. Exploring this place with my childhood friends, we managed to avoid serious trouble while embarking on adventure and mischief. As a young adult, I was exposed to the Appalachian Mountains and later discovered the Desert Southwest — exploring it by car, by horseback and on foot.
When I worked seasonally at the Grand Canyon during my college years, I was instantly captivated by the scenery, geology, ancient cultures and contemporary communities. Those experiences, broadened by literature and art that capture the magnificence of the land and its people, shaped my worldview and have inspired my subsequent explorations.
As a longtime resident of Utah, I turn to the protected mountains and canyons of the West for solitude, beauty and reflection. For more than four decades, I have been visiting these areas with family and friends, exploring new places and returning to favorite haunts. Both working and recreating, I have met remarkable people and made close friends and colleagues in Utah’s rural and urban communities — people who share a love for Utah’s majestic landscapes.
I feel particularly fortunate to live next to one of Utah’s most treasured places: the Wasatch Mountains. In a matter of minutes, I can step away from an urban world into one of stillness and beauty — renewing my sense of purpose and my deep appreciation for this remarkable place we call home. Thanks to our community’s longtime commitment to protecting the landscapes and watersheds of the Wasatch, we are free to hike, fish, hunt, ski and cycle the trails and roads of this publicly owned resource.
Another of my favorite Utah landscapes — a place I “adopted” after moving here in the early 1970s — is the Waterpocket Fold, centered in Capitol Reef National Park. I have spent hundreds of days walking the canyons and ridges of this remarkable place, even once completing a three-week trek along its entire 100-mile length. The park offers spectacular geology, unparalleled beauty and solitude and a rich cultural history.
At the request of locals, the area was first protected in 1937 as a 37,000-acre national monument called “Wayne’s Wonderland.” In 1968, at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall, Capitol Reef was expanded to 250,000 acres. (So upset were the locals over this expansion that Boulder Town changed its name to “Johnson’s Folly,” believing it would be the end of their community.) A few years later, Capitol Reef became a national park pursuant to legislation sponsored by Utah Sen. Frank Moss and Rep. Gunn McKay.
Today, Capitol Reef National Park is widely visited, celebrated and promoted. I am eternally grateful for its preservation and that my children and their children will continue to enjoy it, as I have.
Perhaps my personal attachment to wild places like the Wasatch and Capitol Reef has made me overprotective of Utah’s full range of landscapes and cultural resources. I understand and respect the differing views about how these landscapes — the places we live, work and play — should be administered. And I am saddened by the vitriol that so often accompanies these viewpoints. But I believe there is no substitute for strong protections and preservation of these public assets.
History and changing attitudes have convinced me that the only way to assure future generations will inherit Utah’s natural wonders is through formal, federal protections. While some people believe fervently that federal management blocks economic opportunity and disrupts local culture, my own observations — and history and a growing body of evidence — show that strong public-lands protections fuel thriving economies. Those protections should occur while maximizing local input about management.
As we bid farewell to a year of extreme dysfunction in our public-lands arena, my wish for the new year is that the people who are closest to these landscapes and most familiar with the issues will urge our Utah elected officials to abandon their extreme positions and find sensible solutions that work for everyone. Should they refuse, we owe it to ourselves to replace them with leaders who will.
Ralph Becker is a former mayor of Salt Lake City.