Thursday, June 20, 2013

Standing Down the Bulldozers

"Your conscience tells you what you can do if you feel like paying the price."
                           -- Ken Sleight ("Seldom Seen Smith")

Tim DeChristopher did not know his sympatico prison visitor, fellow Utahan, environmentalist and river runner Ken Sleight, was the model for Seldom Seen Smith in the 1975 book, The Monkey Wrench Gang, for several years after he had read it at age 18.  He did know a few things about monkey wrenching, though, fearlessly following his predecessor in opposing mindless development and wilderness destruction in his home state.

I remember when Dubya Bush predictably opened up hundreds of thousands of Western land to fossil fuels exploration and give-aways to mega ranchers.  His big-biz and investor buddies were incensed that outgoing President Clinton had protected a great deal of mountain, desert and marine territory and it was time to give those good ol' boys what they wanted.  Young student DeChristopher attended one of those oil and gas land auctions and deflated it by offering fake bids, much like Sleight had done in person years before when, astride his horse Knothead, he faced down bulldozers that were poised to take down hundreds of acres of juniper forest at Amasa Back Mesa.  Sleight lost a lot of environmental battles over the years, but he won that one; DeChristopher was successful also when Interior Secretary Salazar invalidated the auction and once again placed 100,000 acres of land under protection.  Well, won and lost:  he still was sent to jail for two years.  He's out as of April 22 of this year -- yes, on Earth Day.

Sleight says he grew up reserved and shy on Idaho farms.  He credits teachers at the University of Utah for helping him find his voice and confidence.  Completing his business degree after a long year firing howitzer shells in Korea, Sleight went to work for Firestone, but the outdoors called him irresistibly.  Remembering when he and two Army colleagues made a raft out of tree trunks and boards to float down the Bukhan River in Korea, he bought surplus rafts to start a business running the rivers that threaded through the southern Utah landscape.  His saw his beloved Glen Canyon doomed in the late 1950s by dams erected to form Lake Powell ("Lake Foul," he called it).  In The Monkey Wrench Gang, disguised as Smith, he is said to have driven a road grader off a cliff into the reservoir and helped dynamite a coal train.  The Glen Canyon Dam was completed, and these days Sleight won't commit to how much of that monkey-wrenching to stop it he actually did.  He did fight against and prevent a highway and bridge across the Escalante River, however, and feels that was his greatest accomplishment.

Newspaper publisher Jim Stiles says of this American Don Quixote, "it's the integrity that you bring to the fight that counts."

(From two articles in the Summer 2013 issue of Continuum, the magazine of the U. of Utah)


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