The Meaning of Virginia Park

Ricegrass. Photo: National Park Service.

In the 1990s I worked at Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park. I was a neoliberal High Country News-reading bureaucrat like Tim Lydon who wrote Protected Lands Generate Big Time Revenue, yet another piece about the economic value of supposed “sustainable” recreation, his perspective one of conservation usurping the very idea of preservation.

Directly from graduate school and Muir, Powell and Leopold’s Wisconsin, my Alabaman friend John Fleming and I put thousands of miles on our feet on the Colorado Plateau over several years. We were fit and should have been tied.

As we’d walk, climb, and observe mostly silence, the trampled landscape that no longer contained biodiversity, like many we’d wonder what was once. When we’d find rare enclaves away from the cattle, bovine and human, we’d marvel at the bunch and rice grass and talk of its past importance to everything. We’d virtuously talk about seeing places before the arrival of the Mormons and Lake Foul. Of us.

So we hatched a plan to go to Virginia Park, a relict area in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, a surviving remnant of the Colorado Plateau that is off limits to humans (except NPS/research). The purpose of the closure is to preserve a place for posterity and research, a comparison of what once was. Other than land and sea rookeries with mostly seasonal closures, less than 100,000 acres of public lands are set aside as relict areas.

We knew it was off limits and didn’t care. Like all individuals, it seems, we believed we knew how to tiptoe through the crypto and never minded the aggregate.

The Bundys define Natural Rights as anthropocentric property rights and public lands law in the United States reflects their “beneficial use” purpose. Very few are off limits to humans and their endeavors for the sake of flora, fauna or their Rights to exist. Instead, everywhere is used  by public lands industries that include energy, agriculture, and recreation. All are top economic sectors, all create value from their accumulation of capital as their property, and all suggest their endeavors are pious.

Like John and me.

A very long walk, climbing over a small block of sandstone in a dreamsicle constriction, our first view of Virginia Park was that she was gorgeous. Huge stabilized dunes with massive velvety snowberry, sticky Mormon Tea, old growth bonsai PJ and unbroken stretches of cowbelly high bunchgrasses in a sea of shoebox skyscraper crypto fields within a sandstone needle amphitheater. A trail ran through the area – already the crypto in the shallow rather than foot trenched trail growing back. We stuck to the washes, instead, as the rains would wash most of our tracks away.

We were happy as fed and watered cattle, taking the Joint Trail back. We compared what we just witnessed to what we were seeing once again as we walked back to the parking lot and the waiting NPS Park Rangers where we were asked about where we were, our shoes, and told about our citations. We had been had.

I hope that as we get old we get wise through recognizing our hypocrisy and correcting it. I should have never gone. I was wreckreation like the millions of others thinking my individual use was somehow to be absolved because ‘I knew better.’ In my youth, I didn’t think much about the aggregate, as I was a meritarch, a neoliberal and pious bureaucrat who believed I was a Lorax understanding the flora, fauna, and cultural resources.

I deserved it and got it good and hard.


People and communities depend on the money generated from the use of public lands, for spiritual renewal, individual awareness, education, empathy. Some are pious endeavors. All feel it is their right, whether for property or anarchistic freedom.

However, in the aggregate, we humans consume everything on the planet at the cost of the rights of nature. When we view public lands as things of value without the wisdom of the harm of the aggregate to the rights of the non-humans who call them their home we are hypocritically uncivilized, unsustainably unwise.

I must say, I appreciate the National Cattlemen Beef Association’s Ethan Lane, as he engages with me via social media unlike the Outdoor Industry Association’s Katie Bouie who blocks me. The fracking lobbyist, Western Energy’s Kathleen Sgamma doesn’t block me like Bouie, but she is MIT indifferent.

In a now deleted tweet tagged with both Lane and Sgamma, Bouie responds to my critique of the OIA – that #Wreckreation is not a #virtue – and how its stance on carrying capacities and quotas on public lands negates the rights of nature. She responded, “Yeah but, we get shit done. I love the idea of preservation, but that’s not reality. Try to work within reality if you want to DO something.”

I believe that Gaia needs a #metoo movement, one with realism and preservationist conviction, one demanding a land ethic of us doing the right thing as we get things done.

Twenty years later, my frontal lobe has matured and overcome some hypocrisy. Regarding entering relict areas, at the time I told my reprimanding Superintendent boss at the park that I think there should be an overlook at the entry pass to Virginia Park, complete with an interpretive exhibit and guided walks for members of Congress.

I still believe it would be of great value for everyone, lobbyist, real estate developer, rancher, miner, fracker and recreationist to see. To understand like Muir, Powell and Leopold.

To, perhaps, wise up, become ‘civilized’ and recognize that all creatures on this planet have rights through seeing what once was and what could be. To expand our ideals of natural rights beyond we virtuous humans to creatures whose only value is unmolested existence.

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Chris Zinda is an activist and writer living in Oregon.

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