Report from the SUWA Grassroots Retreat, May 2010

SUWA Grassroots Leaders Retreat, Moab, Utah
May 14-16, 2010

Blog entry by Stephen Trimble

We were exhilarated by the setting—Canyonlands Field Institute—nestled against the buttes and spires separating Utah’s Professor and Castle valleys. The La Sal Mountains rose to elegant snowy points, upcanyon, and sunset dramatized the red buttresses of Fisher Towers to the north. We were even more energized by the big hearts of the people who came together here for a weekend in mid-May.

Groots Retreat 2010 Twenty SUWA grassroots activists and staff gathered from across the country to brainstorm and strategize about how best to take advantage of this moment of opportunity. How do we influence the Obama administration—so much more receptive to wilderness and conservation than the appalling corporate shills of the Bush administration? How do we convince senators intent on keeping their jobs to become champions for our cause? And how can we influence the negotiations happening in four Utah counties right now in rooms with doors mostly closed? Will those new county-by-county bills craft compromises that increase protection for Utah wilderness?

We sifted through a whirlwind of ideas. We worked from the institutional
memories of old-timers like Wayne Hoskisson, Utah chapter chair of the Sierra Club, from the brilliant grassroots organizing instincts of SUWA’s Deeda Seed and Terri Martin, from the quiet backcountry passion of Massachusetts photographer Harvey Halpern, and from the patient political chops of Clayton Daughenbaugh, SUWA’s Midwest organizer.

We paid particular attention to Colorado, where Senator Mark Udall is the perfect candidate to become a champion for Utah wilderness. With his years of experience as an Outward Bound instructor in southern Utah, no member of Congress is more intimately familiar with the canyons of the redrock backcountry. A cohort of conservation leaders from Colorado along with younger folks new to the fight returned home ready to convince Senator Udall to be courageous “and step into his legacy,” in Terri Martin’s words.

SUWA’s Brooke Williams updated us on the San Juan County negotiations. Deeda Seed described the upcoming media campaign to “mainstream” the fight, to make wilderness preservation a family value. Jackie Feinberg did her best to educate us old geezers on how to effectively use social networking media. Mark Meloy described his “Celebrate Cedar Mesa” event planned for June 12th to rally the local troops to speak for Cedar Mesa’s stunning scenic and cultural wilderness values. “The battle is won if you can organize the choir,” Mark says.

A former leader of SUWA, Larry Young, once told me: “We know the truth. We just have to keep repeating it.” The truth—the facts of Utah wilderness issues—guided our weekend discussion. They bear repeating, for they frame every pitch we make.

The acreage in the Redrock Wilderness Act holds less than 1 week of oil, just four weeks of natural gas. A majority of Utahns support preservation of 9 million acres or more of Utah BLM wilderness. SUWA has succeeded in halting a fifty-year loss of wilderness; under SUWA’s watch, only 1 percent has been lost since the Citizen’s Inventory. Wherever the BLM has gone back into the field to reinventory, they agree with the citizen’s inventory about 90 percent of the time.

These are the facts. Just keep repeating them.

We began with a night of rain, swaddled in fleece and Gore-tex, and ended in shorts and t-shirts two days later, swatting gnats. We hiked together in the canyons, to petroglyphs on a high outcrop, to the waterfall deep in Mary Jane Canyon. As always, conversations on these walks generated connections that will ripple outward for years.

And then we went home. George Handley returned to his students at BYU, to galvanize wilderness sensibility in this unlikeliest of audiences. Mike Painter went home to San Francisco to continue his tireless efforts as director of Californians for Western Wilderness. Bev and Dave Wolf headed down the road to photograph for as many days as they could squeeze in before taking those images home to Michigan, where they will show them at SUWA and Sierra Club meetings and sign up new activists.

It’s lifelong work. Terri Martin and I reminisced about our first meeting almost thirty years ago in Moab during the fight against proposed nuclear waste dumps near Canyonlands in the early 1980s. I expect many of us will be seeing each other again for years to come at events like this one. I just hope that those future events include some celebrations of success along with strategizing defense for these wilderness redrock canyons we all cherish.