A Right-Now Battle for the Future of America’s Public Lands

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Stephen Nash, author of Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change

America’s national park system is the most familiar component of our vast estate of federal public lands: forests and grasslands, wildlife refuges, millions of acres of rangelands. These landscapes all add up to more than a fourth of the U.S. national dirt. Earth Week 2017 finds the survival of their natural systems increasingly vulnerable, politically and biologically.

The plan long promoted by conservation biologists and environmentalists, and seriously contemplated by the federal government in the recent past, was to move toward connecting these lands to help ensure their protection from industrial exploitation and development pressures, and to enable species to adapt and migrate in the face of quickly arriving climate change.

But a powerful, well-funded political movement is pushing in the other direction: to atomize federal public lands, hand them over to the states, and privatize them. My book Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change details this conflict, its origins, and its political and ideological supporters, from ranchers to billionaires. The Trump administration has been both equivocal and non-vocal on this issue so far — hard to prophesy how this map will look on Earth Week 2018, and beyond.

With Grand Canyon National Park as the foreground example, we can also see the biological threats to the future of public lands: recurring waves of imported invasive species that disrupt ecosystems, a lengthening list of endangered species whose populations steadily diminish and, especially, climate change. These factors are already transforming public lands, including Grand Canyon.

Fortunately, natural scientists and their allies spend whole careers on research and field work to mitigate these losses and plan for a radically different climatic future. Their work, too, is embattled. Many of them will celebrate Earth Day around the U.S. this weekend by taking part in a March for Science. For public lands and for science both, we’ll see what direction the coming year takes…


Stephen Nash is the author of award-winning books on science and the environment, and his reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BioScience, Archaeology, and The New Republic. He is Visiting Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond


Interview with Author Stephen Trimble

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Bargaining for Eden, Stephen Trimble’s newest book, follows citizens in two communities grappling with change on extraordinary public lands in their backyards. Conflict grows from the tension between grassroots values and greed, politics, ownership, and patriarchy. First comes Mount Ogden and the history of the Public-Lands West, from overused commons to reclaimed national forest to ski area—all community-based. The beloved ski area then loses its sense of community as the mountain develops into a resort that hosts the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The lens for this story is billionaire resort owner Earl Holding, whose power and money bring him what he wants, despite the anger and agony of local people trying to preserve their special relationship with the mountain.

A version of the following interview with Trimble on Bargaining for Eden originally ran in the July/August 2008 issue of The Bloomsbury Review.

Much of Bargaining for Eden circles around a wealthy and powerful man named Earl Holding. Why is he important—what does his story tell us about our contemporary relationships to the land?

Before we turn to Earl, pause for just a moment. Think about a place you love—from your childhood or coming of age—and tell me whether it looks the same now as it did when you first came to know this place. Now, replay the chain of events that created this change. Did we make decisions consciously or did we take your beloved place for granted—and then, to our regret, suddenly recognize our loss? In Bargaining for Eden I explore these transformations in our home landscapes, using two stories as archetypes.
Earl Holding becomes my symbol of the heavy-handed power that drives this change. While the rest of us stand in a circle and squabble over the future of lands we all love, Earl and his friends sweep in and take what they want, often before the rest of us even know what has happened. It’s the universal script shrinking the last open spaces of America.
And so who is Earl? Every town in America has someone like him, a fabulously successful entrepreneur whose power grows—straightforwardly—from money and connection, whose desires often trump community interest. He isn’t as destructive as many other tycoons, but he usually gets his way. This makes me crazy, but I’m an irredeemable optimist, and so I’m convinced that we can retreat from the brink.
Earl Holding grew up poor just a few blocks from my family’s home in Salt Lake City—a generation earlier than my own childhood in Denver. But the Interior West is really just one huge small town strung out along our highways. As we all do, Earl carries his youthful connections with him along those roads. A childhood friend of his is now the president and prophet of the Mormon Church. Other neighborhood boys have manned the Utah congressional delegation for decades. Dick Cheney records the video tribute when Earl wins an award.
Earl Holding is a recluse and an eccentric—and a forceful member of the inner circle of power in Mormon Country. He owns the Little America hotel chain, Sinclair Oil, Sun Valley and Snowbasin ski resorts, and 500,000 acres of land in the West. He is now worth nearly $5 billion, which makes him the 77th richest American on the 2008 Forbes 400 list.

What happened at Snowbasin, according to one of Earl’s opponents, was “a museum of improprieties.” What were those improprieties?

My chronicle starts in 1997, when I drove up the winding road on Mount Ogden for the first time, on a travel story assignment to photograph Snowbasin before the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics arrived and the funky ski area in northern Utah became a mega-resort. This place reminded me of the little Colorado areas where I learned to ski in the Sixties. Within weeks of my visit, however, massive change would begin to transform Snowbasin. As a writer, I knew there was a good story buried in that mountain.
I started with an idea for a book centered on the Olympics. I asked a simple question: “What will it take to bring an Olympic downhill racer on Mount Ogden down to the finish line in 2002?” I knew that the answers to that question would lead me far beyond the actual construction of the racecourse into the story of the mountain itself—into the history of skiing in North America and the evolution of the Public-Lands West, and, finally, to the transformation of Snowbasin from old-fashioned local ski area to corporate showplace and the resulting loss of community. All these threads lead toward one fundamental question about our relationship with landscape: what is a mountain for?
As I did my best to report that story, scene by scene, character by character, I found Earl Holding looming everywhere. He wanted to craft his own version of the mountain. And the United States Congress gave him what he wanted—by passing a bill to privatize public lands in the national forest at the base of Snowbasin. To make that happen, Earl used the Olympics as an excuse. And nearly every institution he confronted fell in line.
I didn’t set out to write a biography of Earl Holding. I simply began asking questions about the future of a mountain—Mount Ogden—and Earl appeared in nearly every answer. So I felt obliged to engage with him, to do my best to understand his values.
The arrogance and privilege wielded by Earl and his people constitute that long chain of “improprieties” mourned by Gale Dick, the co-founder of Save Our Canyons, the hometown defender of the wild Wasatch Range.

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How important is the Mormon religion to Utah politics and culture?

Two-thirds of Utah citizens still have Mormon roots, and I believe that their cultural values of obedience and patriarchy make it easier for politicians and powerful businesspeople to have their way; that the tight circles connecting people through heritage and childhood and Sunday worship make dissent difficult; and that development is seen as inherently good. Rural Mormons still believe they are on a mission from their god to make the desert blossom as the rose.

The writer Tim Cahill once said that “every good story has a bastard.” Is Earl your bastard, your bad guy?

I know what Tim Cahill means. Conflict holds the reader. And there was no lack of conflict on Mount Ogden. But the “evil” Earl, the one-dimensional bad guy that my grassroots conservationist characters compare to Hitler, isn’t as interesting as the Earl I found.
Earl loves to win, to own. He loves to make deals. He is a breathtakingly good businessman. But he isn’t necessarily the most villainous character in the story. Gray Reynolds, who shepherded Earl’s land trade bill through Congress while deputy chief of the Forest Service and then changed allegiance to work for Earl, might be a bigger villain, though his motivation turns out to be surprisingly bland. Gray loves to ski and believes that the bigger the resort, the better.
Like Gray Reynolds, I love to ski. My lifelong affection for skiing was the spark for this book. I became intrigued with the construction of the downhill course at Snowbasin, in part, because I had fantasized about Olympic downhills ever since I watched Robert Redford in Downhill Racer when I was a teenager! And so I must confront my own inconsistencies as I gleefully ski the big mountain, forced to acknowledge that I am helping to support the greed and corporatization that homogenizes the joyous localism of skiing before I retreat with relief to my favorite old-fashioned ski area!
So we’re all bastards. Paradox makes a better story than a rant.

Can you talk about how you grant your characters complexity and humanity, and, in Earl’s case, without ever interviewing him?

I tried repeatedly to reach Earl Holding directly—and when that didn’t work, through his secretary, staff, and children. His corporate spokesperson talked with me, but not Earl. As I contrived to place myself in his path, one friend accused me of being a stalker. Earl’s 2002 stroke softened him, but my phone still didn’t ring. He really had no good reason to talk with me.
I shook hands with Earl once, but I chose not to confront him when I had the chance. I realized that I could create him as a character, that he was most interesting as a remote and unreachable symbol. That’s how he appears in our lives. And so I worked with anecdote and reputation to construct Earl as a myth that illuminates the one-sided impact of power on relationships—between individuals, within communities, and between people and the land. I’m sure Earl would take issue with some of the details and stories I’ve written. But these are the stories people believe to be true. I’m most interested in how the community perceives him.
I spoke with people who worked on the Snowbasin land trade at high levels in the Clinton administration, and I spoke with a woman named Margot Smelzer in her living room in Huntsville, where she decided to fight Earl because she genuinely believed in the sacred nature of the public trust—an ethic she learned from her old-time forester father. In the end, I came close to knowing, moment by moment, just how we make our decisions about these places we all share, just how implacable are the politics of power. I was moved by the dedication to old-fashioned citizenship of the people who loved the mountain rising from their backyard and by the decency of the public servants in the Federal agencies. Many who work for Earl share a love for the same places. Again and again, I discovered that the good guys and bad guys are not so sharply delineated as we might think.
People I’ve actually interviewed and observed carry their own inconsistencies and confusions along with their passions, and this is what leads to the mix of courage and boldness and missed chances and inaction and selfishness that constitutes history.
Earl is not my enemy. He is not my nemesis. I am not obsessed with him. He is, quite simply, my character. He came with the mountain. And I since I’ve had this intimate relationship with him for years as a character, I call him Earl.

One of the opponents of Holding’s land-swap and development of Snowbasin, Jim Kilburn, was so deeply upset by the construction up on Mount Ogden that one day he climbed a lift chair, tied himself in, and shot himself. This is a shocking and poignant story. Did Jim Kilburn really intend his suicide to be a protest against Holding’s hubris?

It’s a troubling question that I keep asking myself, too—and this is the most controversial story in the book. How much did Earl’s unyielding drive to transform Snowbasin trigger Jim’s decision to take his life? Jim Kilburn was an alcoholic, but he was also a much-loved and charismatic man. He hated what was happening at Snowbasin. Jim’s friends agree that his lifelong emotional troubles finally overwhelmed him. They also absolutely believe that his final act was, in part, an act of defiance to give meaning to his death.

Earl doesn’t always win. Can you tell us the story of that florist in Salt Lake City who fought Earl and won?

Earl Holding‘s extravagant monument to hotel-keeping is the five-diamond Grand America in downtown Salt Lake City. The hotel fills an over-sized block, except for one corner, where Earl’s granite walls must jog around an unassuming flower shop because its manager, Mac Livingston, fought Earl to a standstill—preventing him from receiving public funds for his development and refusing to sell him the land. Mac was born to be a character—a western Don Quixote, born in Freedom, Utah, an earnest citizen who quotes John Locke while working frantically for what he believes to be the public good. When I first called him for an interview, there was a long pause at the other end of the line. And then, intense and exultant, relieved that a writer had finally appeared to tell his story, Mac said evenly: “I’ve been waiting for your call.”

Your reporting was intensive. How did you decide to structure the book, writing both as a literary journalist and a memoirist?

The reporting was a joy. I walked the Olympic downhill racecourse with the first trail crew to cut brush; with Bernhard Russi, the Swiss Olympic star who designed the course; with Earl Holding’s son-in-law; and with the Forest Service rangers who were the only voice of the people. I skied the course with Gray Reynolds. It was truly fascinating.
I had many teetering towers to juggle—the years of notes from fieldwork and interviews, fat folders of relevant news stories, a library worth of relevant background reading, and my own “memoirish” musings, especially from our land and home-building adventures in Torrey. Once I found the dramatic tension in my story—the mirror that reflected Earl and me back on one another in an interesting loop—my task in structuring and rewriting was to weave the strands together into a coherent, stimulating whole.
A book about the Olympics might have taken me three years to research and write, but Bargaining for Eden took ten. You’ve got to be crazy to spend so much of your life on one project. But it was a watershed for me. I took on the book as a challenge to my skills as a writer, looking to integrate the interesting historical context, the characters, the journalistic tracking down of the details, and my own literary voice into something that really worked. I thought this would happen by focusing on the Olympics, and when it didn’t, I just kept at it. When I think about the book, it’s a culmination of my middle age, my coming-of-age, though maybe a little late! It’s not a book from my youth or my maturity; it’s a pivotal book for me as a writer.

Part of what you’re after in Bargaining for Eden is finding a way for people to have conversations, even if they’re on different sides of these big issues. You admit in the book that you are conflict-averse, that you are “no Michael Moore.” Is that also a commentary about Moore’s style of confrontation wearing thin?

This is the fundamental realization that I reached in the book. As I followed these stories over ten years, I became convinced that we’ve got to keep talking, no matter what. We’ve got to keep listening, no matter what. Visionary behavior turns out to be pretty simple.
It’s interesting that publication of my book coincides with the end of the Bush years and the beginning of the Obama years. Clearly, the entire country is ready to move back toward civility in our public dialogue.

You describe your childhood travels with your family and how you often spent the night at the very place where Earl first made his mark, the famous Little America truck stop in Wyoming—a place you remember with affection. You even admit to having a bit of Earl in you as you go on to describe how you and your wife became mini-developers of a sort. Can you talk about the ethical and aesthetic implications of those first-person narratives?

If I expected to understand Earl’s dream for the mountain and penetrate to the roots of his values, I had to understand my own. I’m a Boomer-generation environmentalist, shaped by my grief over barely missing the chance to see Glen Canyon before it was drowned by Lake Powell, galvanized by that first 1970 Earth Day when I was in college, and now a veteran of decades of letter-writing and public hearings. Just as I poked around in Earl’s past, I looked to my childhood and my family to comprehend why Earl and I had such contrasting visions of caring for landscapes.
Then, in the middle of tracking these stories in the northern Utah mountains, my wife and I fell in love with a mesa just outside Capitol Reef National Park, near the village of Torrey in southern Utah. To make our own dream of ownership financially feasible, we split the land, selling an existing house and a few acres. And so I became a land developer, too. On a tiny scale, I became Earl—and had to face Earl’s values within myself.
When we started the process of buying our land, I saw that I was surrounded by ironies: Earl was a developer and now I was a developer; Ogden as a community was helpless in the face of Snowbasin development (which I opposed) and the citizens of southern Utah were helpless in the face of the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (which I supported). The mirrors between the Mount Ogden citizens and the citizens in my new community, the growth and development in both places, my not wanting to be seen as a “NIMBY” (“Not in My Back Yard”) or a “wealthy, overeducated spoiled brat” (as a neighbor calls us move-ins in southern Utah)—all these parallels let me enter the story. The book would have been straight nonfiction without this ethical paradox. My grappling with my own issues brings the whole challenge of making these decisions about land to a personal level and makes me see Earl Holding in a very personal way.
It wasn’t just a theoretical acknowledgment of the old line, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It was much more startlingly personal: I had become the enemy. Instead of a linear and depressing account of the little guys losing to power, the story became much more complex and nuanced as I turned from observer to actor and struggled to come to terms with my new identity as a second-home owner in The New West, a newly minted citizen of rural Utah.

And where are we headed in the rural West as it fills in with those second homes? Do you hope that your “Credo” at the book’s conclusion can help guide us back to Wallace Stegner’s “geography of hope,” which, elsewhere in the book you suggest has become a “geography of hostility”?

I believe that community dialogue, reciprocity, and common ground exist; that we can break the angry standoff between longtime villagers and the “wealthy, overeducated, spoiled-brat” newcomers; that we must do so or the forces that threaten the open spaces we all cherish will steamroll our communities. I found so much disheartening news that I wanted to find my way back from all that ferocious hostility. The raw young West is filling in and becoming what I call The Middle-Aged West. I believe we can see common values more clearly in our maturity. The tension is there. We have to talk about it.
The “Credo” does end the book on a note of hope, with a condensed guide for citizens and communities seeking to reinvent their relationship with the American landscape.

Did your experience working on Testimony, the book of essays in defense of Utah wilderness that you compiled with Terry Tempest Williams, affect your decision to include the “Credo?”

My books lead me, layer by layer, through the complexities of my home landscape. I started as a park ranger, writing straight natural history. I moved on to native peoples. After I had kids, I wanted to investigate the connections between childhood and wild places in The Geography of Childhood. Testimony brought all of this to bear on direct political action. And in Bargaining for Eden, I try to understand the consequences of that political action, to discover just how we make our decisions about these landscapes we call home. The “Credo” sums up what I’ve learned while trying to connect the dots between conversation, conservation, and citizenship.

So, how are things now down in Torrey, where you built your home in Wayne County, Utah? On the one hand, as a homeowner there, as a taxpayer, you have a certain standing that as an “outsider” you couldn’t have. On the other, the mayor hung up on you.

I’ve been spending time in Wayne County for more than thirty years—ever since I was a park ranger at Capitol Reef in 1975—but I’ll always be an outsider. I still believe that outsiders and locals in the rural West can make real progress if we stand along Main Street and talk and kick the tires and listen and kick the tires some more until we find our way to common ground.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration did everything it could to rush development on public lands in America’s Redrock Wilderness—without public dialogue. Many of those initiatives have the full momentum of the federal government, and it’s going to take years of courtroom battles to block them.
Across America we are waking up to the crisis of the loss of open space, from city sprawl to privatization of public lands in the remote West. The land trust movement is thriving. In Wayne County, in 2009 a new citizens association began to meet to address the future proactively. I remain an optimist. I have to be an optimist.

What’s next for you?

I spent the academic year of 2008-2009 as a Wallace Stegner Centennial Fellow at the University of Utah, leading a statewide conversation about Stegner’s work in the centennial year of his birth. I greatly enjoyed teaching a class on “Stegner & Western Lands” at the University, and I’ll be teaching more college classes, I’m sure.
Meanwhile, the photo exhibit on which my book, Lasting Light: 125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography, is based is now touring nationally under the auspices of the Smithsonian. I’ve been speaking at each museum where the exhibit appears, sharing the stories of passion and persistence told to me by the contemporary Grand Canyon photographers featured in the project.