Roads in the Wilderness is a thoughtful and insightful examination of the meaning and significance of roads in southeastern Utah – canyon country. Referencing the earliest non-native explorers, Jedediah S. Rogers reminds us of the disparate ways that the region has been perceived over more than two centuries: wasteland to be avoided or conquered, resource repository, spiritual refuge, or ecological sanctuary.
Rogers begins by recounting the struggles of Mormons assigned in 1879 to establish a settlement east of the Colorado River, an assignment marked by a harrowing descent of wagons through the Hole-in-the-Rock on the canyon rim. It’s not surprising that descendants of those pioneers, and their successors, might feel a proprietary sense for the area, a sense untempered by federal jurisdiction.
Roads are not merely historical and cultural artifacts, but carry legally significance as well. Until repealed in 1976, R.S. 2477 broadly granted public right-of-way for construction of highways across public lands. Even today, demonstration that a road was in continuous use for ten years prior to 1976 is a litmus test for recognition of right-of-way claims. But what is a road, and what is continuous use? These legal ambiguities are paralleled by questions about what should be designated wilderness, “untrammeled” by man. The result is that roads have become considered antithetical to wilderness, and complex questions of land management often devolve into a binary choice of whether or not a road should be recognized. These ongoing legal battles generally show no sign of imminent resolution; past controversies often continue to smolder between deadlocked and opposing political forces.
Drawing on past political battles such as wilderness designation for Negro Bill Canyon and paving the Burr Trail, Rogers provides essential historical context for today’s debates. It was less than a month ago that Recapture Canyon saw an OHV protest ride, apparently for no purpose other than to defy BLM authority.
Winner of the Wallace Stegner Prize in American Environmental for Western History, Roads in the Wilderness is essential reading for those devoted to rough and sparsely populated southeastern Utah. Rogers concludes with the hope that political opponents can recognize in each other a shared commitment to stewardship, (albeit of different interpretations), to find new alternatives to historical land management options. I highly recommend this book to an LDS Earth Stewardship audience.