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Wandering the West

The headline in a week-old Tribune read, "Utah sues over wild lands designations," and I could have recited it in my sleep without reading it. It’s pretty much the same old story. When a Democrat sits in the White House and controls the executive branch, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are ordered to look at their holdings and try to find more areas that fit the legal definition of wilderness. Then Republicans hoot and holler, and file lawsuits like Governor Gary Herbert did last week, to protest the lockup of valuable resources we can’t live without.

When Republicans are in charge, like George W. Bush before Obama, the same agencies are ordered to unravel the public-land protections set by the previous Democratic administration. That’s when Democrats and environmentalist do the screaming and the lawsuit filing. The BLM and Forest Service rangers may get bureaucratic whiplash, but somewhere in the middle is this crazy balance point that seems to leave most everything about as it was before.

I was thinking about these yo-yoing philosophies while taking one of my favorite drives in Utah last weekend. Starting from Zion National Park, a place both Republicans and Democrats can agree should be protected forever, we headed through the Zion tunnels to Mount Carmel Junction. That’s where we joined U.S. Highway 89, which slices through some of the West’s grandest scenery, skirting the Grand Canyon and leading to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.

In Utah, Highway 89’s scenery is less grand, but every mile holds something to see. Now billed as the "Heritage Highway," it leads from one small town settled by Mormon pioneers to the next.

I’ve driven this road for three decades now, and after that many trips, you get to know what’s around the next bend: Who collects deer antlers, where the cool rock shops are, and where to get a decent burger. The towns, from Orderville to Glendale to Hatch to Panguitch to Manti to Ephraim, were all settled by Mormon pioneers as early as the 1850s, and are populated by their descendants today. Somehow they still manage to get by, raising kids and cows, cutting down trees, mining coal, and selling lunches, rocks and motel rooms to national park tourists. Through the years the towns always look about the same degree of down but not quite out.

Last weekend’s trip offered changes I wasn’t expecting. The motels were refurbished. New ones had risen. The grand old brick pioneer homes with the big front porches were fixed up and freshly painted. Much of the junk was gone. In Long Valley, large new homes were tucked into the trees and real estate signs beckoned to those longing for tranquil 10-acre ranch estates. Long Valley used to grow cattle, not vacation homes.

In Hatch there’s an espresso stand. Espresso! In Hatch!

It was obvious to me that this prosperity came not from what locals were mining or harvesting. Loggers aren’t buying espresso. Grader operators aren’t buying ranchettes.

It seems like a happy balance is being reached along Highway 89 that doesn’t require opposing land management philosophies to duke it out in courtrooms and barrooms. The thought occurred to me just north of Marysvale, an old mining town long past its boom days.

We came upon a sign offering "all you can eat crab" on Saturday nights. Crab in Marysvale? As unlikely as espresso in Hatch. It was Saturday night, the parking lot was full, and so we pulled into Hoover’s Grill and River Resort. While Hoover’s is a generations-old highway stop, new owners have built beautiful cabins and filled them with log furniture, satellite TVs and wireless Internet. The grill featured fresh fish from Hawaii, crab legs from Alaska, and fine barbecue and kitschy décor that kept the eyes moving. And deep in Mormon country, it offered a wine list, four draught beers and more microbrews than you could shake a hiking stick at.

Hoover’s sits on the Sevier River with access to the Pauite ATV Trail a 278-mile loop that crosses Forest Service, BLM and state lands. ATVs are not my cup of tea. I pretty much hate them all. But here across Forest Service, BLM and state lands, trail networks have brought tourists and prosperity and all-you-can-eat crab nights. Down valley the ranchers are getting top dollar for vacation homesteads, and motels are filling with espresso drinkers. And there are still lands in Bryce Canyon, the Grand Staircase Monument and in the forests and deserts nearby that remain untouched for those who walk into them.

Along Highway 89 at least, they’ve found the crazy balance point without all the hooting and hollering and lawsuits.

Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.

Websites: http://www.utahheritage.com ; http://www.hooversresort.com


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