My family moved from Massachusetts to Utah County when I was 5. I couldn’t articulate at the time the impression the 11,000-foot peaks of Mount Timpanogos and Mount Nebo and the rest of the Wasatch Front made on me. As a boy used to roaming the beaches of Cape Cod, I was immediately impressed.
Eastern forests of second growth maples and oaks obscured my view beyond a hundred yards. The desert valleys and forested mountains of Utah offered views for distances I hadn’t imagined, and could not comprehend even as I beheld them. It did not take long for me to fall in love with Utah.
Within two years I dragged my father along for a hike up a small canyon at the base of Timpanogos just south of the “G” printed on the slope behind Pleasant Grove. Dad was not an outdoor type, and we returned after sunset late at night to find the search and rescue assembling near our home with mother in tears, anticipating the worst.
Our late return worried me far less than it had my mother. Dad was just glad the hike was over.
Needless to say, all hikes were done with my older brother in the future, and included trips to the summit of Timpanogos, with its commanding view of the valley below. I had found a home, and my love for my home eventually led me into environmental activism.
Naively, I assumed others shared a similar response to limestone and granite mountains, spruce, fir, and ponderosa forests, and red rock canyons with ancient images of bighorn sheep and hunters chiseled or painted into their walls.
The Cold War was raging, but I had no awareness of the nuclear bomb testing still going on below ground in Nevada, upwind from the wind-swept hillsides I loved to explore. Cancer was something that naturally happened to older people, and I was sure my family and friends were immune to it for years to come.
No one spoke of the chemical weapons stored even closer to home, and the open-air tests conducted by the military at Dugway were either unknown to my family or were not discussed because these were considered a military necessity, given the Communist menace lurking on the other side of the globe.
The idea Utah could be a target was as unimaginable to me as the mountains had been to the Massachusetts boy when he arrived a few years before.
In high school a new term entered my vocabulary, “downwinder.” The cancer death of former Utah Gov. Scott Matheson was linked to this word, and it was then that I learned what it meant. Within a matter of years I heard of several family members and friends who had experienced thyroid problems, including cancer. All were older, but none were much older than my parents. By the time I married and began to raise a family, the stories were more numerous and legislation was making its way through Congress to compensate the “victims” of nuclear testing.
The natural beauty of my home was subject to other assaults as well. A visit to the Targhee National Forest in southeastern Idaho exposed me to my first timber clearcuts, and an article about a Utah legislator regarding his proposal to reduce the penalty for poaching mountain lions — an animal long ago extirpated in the East — raised my ire. My home was not only a target, but was being taken for granted by those elected to serve it.
For me, environmental activism is an act of homeland security. I am one of a small percentage of Americans lucky enough to have put down roots. My wife and I bought a home shortly after we married, and while we have discussed moving, the Intermountain West has always been the focus of those discussions. In all likelihood we could never leave Utah for long.
Proposals to ship high-level nuclear waste just down the highway from my home, or to accept hotter radioactive waste at the Envirocare facility, also just off Interstate 80, are proposals I take very personally. Reading Forest Service descriptions of old growth as “decadent” trees that must be removed to save the forest from the natural processes that created it make me angry.
Environmental activism for me is about protecting my home. I don’t want one more generation of Utahns, including my daughter, to live unwittingly downwind. I don’t want the public lands we all own to be lost to the chainsaw, the oil well or industrial tourism.
Securing the homeland to me means passing at least some of what makes Utah beautiful and unique on to my daughter, and ensuring not one more species is lost. And perhaps a few, like the wolf, can even be restored.
CRAIG AXFORD ran for congress on the Green Party ticket. He works for the Utah Environmental Congress.