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Environment

Firsthand Encounter of the Solar Eclipse

As has become common knowledge by now, a total solar eclipse is when the moon passes in between Earth and the Sun, casting a shadow upon the Earth and momentarily blocking the Sun. Due to the elliptical orbit of the moon, total solar eclipses occur once every 18 months, or about two times every three years. Prior to the August eclipse, the last eclipse to take place close to Utah was on Monday Feb. 26, 1979 — 38 years ago. This meant that the August eclipse, at least for us Utahns, was a big deal.

We looked at different maps of Wyoming as we planned our trip to view the full eclipse. We decided to venture up to Lake of the Woods on the Wind River Mountain Range in Wyoming, a remote destination approximately 40 miles due east of Jackson. We traveled north with a group of nine on a Sunday afternoon in preparation for the total solar eclipse the following day, Monday, Aug. 21. This was going to be the first total solar eclipse any of us had ever seen before, so we had no expectations, predictions, or emotions for what was coming our way. During our drive up, the excitement kept building as we saw more and more people from all over the United States traveling to witness totality.

Photographing the Great American Total Solar Eclipse from Lake of the Woods, Wyoming with Nik, Liz, Peter, Markus, Blake, Kristen, Eric, and Jani on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017
(Photo by Kiffer Creveling)

Building Excitement

As the sun set that first night, the air turned colder and colder. The temperature dropped even more once the sky turned black and the stars appeared. We could hear other eclipse chasers enjoying themselves with music, laughs, and the company they came with. A group of us walked down to the water’s edge to see one of the other party’s telescopes they had set up earlier. When we approached the other group, we found out that they had traveled from Colorado to view the eclipse. They invited us to look through their telescope to view various features within the night sky. You could visualize meteors burning up in Earth’s atmosphere, and constellations were as clear as glass. The Milky Way Galaxy was visible because it was a new moon. Polaris, the North Star, was shining brilliantly in the constellation Ursa Minor. The best, by far, was being able to see Saturn — we could actually make out the individual rings orbiting the planet. There was so much excitement in the air it was difficult to sleep knowing what would happen in less than 12 hours. We all fell asleep at some point anyway, gazing at the heavens above.

The next morning, we made breakfast and began setting up our chairs and cameras to view the solar eclipse. We had a few of our group members continually checking the sun’s status using eclipse glasses to let us know when the moon was beginning to make its pass in front of the sun.

Then they yelled, “It’s happening!”

Photographing the Great American Total Solar Eclipse from Lake of the Woods, Wyoming with Nik, Liz, Peter, Markus, Blake, Kristen, Eric, and Jani on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017
(Photo by Kiffer Creveling)

The Path of Totality

We all rushed to prepare for what we knew was coming next, quickly putting on our eclipse glasses. As parts of the sun began to disappear, the camping group next to us set off a few gun shots to notify everyone in the area. Suddenly, the intensity of the sun’s light began to decrease. The penumbra (partial shadow cast from the moon) was upon us. As the penumbra continued to pass overhead, and the moon was obscuring more and more of the sun, the thermometer we brought showed the temperature of the air was indeed dropping, just as our bodies told us it was. Every 10 minutes or so, we had one of our group members yell out the temperature.

The moon kept moving over the face of the sun, and more and more light was disappearing right before us. It got darker as we were nearing the umbra (the full shadow cast from the moon). The shadows became visibly sharper as the sun took on a crescent moon shape. We looked at the shadows around us as they, too, took the same crescent shape. We found ourselves struggling to believe our eyes at this amazing view.

Photographing the Great American Total Solar Eclipse from Lake of the Woods, Wyoming with Nik, Liz, Peter, Markus, Blake, Kristen, Eric, and Jani on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017
(Photo by Kiffer Creveling)

Photographing the Great American Total Solar Eclipse from Lake of the Woods, Wyoming with Nik, Liz, Peter, Markus, Blake, Kristen, Eric, and Jani on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017
(Photo by Kiffer Creveling)

Photographing the Great American Total Solar Eclipse from Lake of the Woods, Wyoming with Nik, Liz, Peter, Markus, Blake, Kristen, Eric, and Jani on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017
(Photo by Kiffer Creveling)

The moon’s course didn’t slow, and the sky and space around us continued to darken. For a few seconds, the Diamond Ring effect was visible, and then what are called Bailey’s Beads appeared as the light from the sun passed through the valleys of the moon’s surface. The umbra was overhead, and since we were in the path of totality, we were able to remove our glasses, looking with our naked eye at the eclipsed sun.

We cheered during this moment of complete totality. The corona, or the outer surface of the sun’s atmosphere, was the only light visible along with a small reddish layer that is the inner layer of the sun’s atmosphere, known as the chromosphere, shining intermittently around the perimeter of the moon.

Around us was a 360 degree sunset. The orange glow layered the horizon, transitioning from blue to a deep black near the sun. Stars became visible. The closest star visible to the naked eye was Regulus, which is seen in the night sky of the northern astronomical hemisphere during the winter time. Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun in our solar system, was visible along with Jupiter, Venus, and Mars. The eclipse created the darkest black we had ever seen. A small Cessna airplane flew right in front of our view, perfectly silhouetted by the corona.

Photographing the Great American Total Solar Eclipse from Lake of the Woods, Wyoming with Nik, Liz, Peter, Markus, Blake, Kristen, Eric, and Jani on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017
(Photo by Kiffer Creveling)

After exactly 2 minutes and 30 seconds of this miracle, sunlight began to peek over the moon through Bailey’s Beads, and then the diamond ring appeared vibrantly again before we were blinded by the light from the sun.

An Unforgettable Experience

From that point until the eclipse ended, our eclipse glasses never again left our faces. Just like that, totality — where daytime transitioned to nighttime in the middle of the day — was over. Even so, the shadows on the ground remained extremely sharp, and crescent moon shapes lay underneath the trees.The only difference now from before totality was that the temperature was increasing.

This was an experience of a lifetime. We are already marking our calendars for the next astronomical spectacle that will occur in the United States in 2024, starting in Texas and moving towards Maine.

k.creveling@wasatchmag.com

p.creveling@wasatchmag.com

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Opening Minds to the Oquirrh Mountains

Veiled in mystery by the legalities and the eminence of the adjacent Wasatch mountains, the Oquirrh Range serves as the 10,000 feet dividing line between the Salt Lake and Tooele valleys. Equipped solely with the knowledge of a BLM public lands route provided by an outdated hiking guide, and a strong desire to summit a couple of the Oquirrh’s more prominent mountain tops, I took to the westernmost ridge of Kessler Peak.

It seems that the majority of Salt Lake residents simply lack the desire to trek into the Oquirrhs, given the close proximity of the sublime, and comparably larger Wasatch Range. Those who have opened their minds and weekends to the western green peaks have often suffered for it. They are met with the intimidating barrier of red tape and prohibitions deterring even the most intrepid outdoorsmen from entering for fear of hefty fines — or worse. Painfully evident by the violently dissolved mountain that is now the main Kennecott mining facility, the Oquirrh Range remains in a perpetual state of contractual inaccessibility since Rio Tinto’s colossal 1872 land grab that still holds control to this day.

With this corporate acquisition and grand expanses of private purchases, virtually the entire eastern face of the Oquirrhs is restricted to public use (with some exceptions to the far south). While some exploit the negligence of private landowners and trail-blaze in this region outside of the law, those who prefer risk-free, legal natural emersion are ultimately out of luck. Thankfully, the back westernmost face of the range offers a patchy network of BLM land allowing access to those extra-determined to explore Oquirrh terrain without paying heavily for it.

Following the guidance and antiquated advice of a 7-year-old online hiking guide, I made my way to that western back side with hopes of surmounting the ridgeline connecting Kessler and Farnsworth Peaks without deliberately breaking any laws. The guide I relied on did accurately get me to the approximate location of an access point, though it failed to compensate for the nascent housing developments along the base of these mountains.

The overlying drawback of hiking in a largely neglected public land is the total absence of trails, and the consequential abundance of wildlife and wilderness left to flourish independently of human obstruction. When I arrived, I was without the helpful understanding that the access point was at the perpendicular bend, and I began much farther back than I ought to have. I was thus left to bushwhack through dense, arid fields of overgrown dead grass, and the ubiquitous webs of hobo spider webs strung among them (yes, hobo spiders). Long pants and socks are highly recommended in this area in anticipation of the venomous arachnids that call it home — exercise caution.

Aside from the apparent danger of overgrown desert wilderness, the back face of the Oquirrh Range is beautiful. It serves as a tangible reminder of the desolate nature the remaining untamed American West provides.

While my lack of preparation and foresight forced my dejected party to turn back before completing the trek, an impetuous push up the ridge will eventually place you atop Kessler Peak. It is connected by an extended ridgeline to Farnsworth Peak, the more dominant of the two. Note: A section of this ridgeline is private land. Trespassing is not encouraged and would be done at your own risk.

Even if not for the explicit purpose of surmounting some of the more obscure peaks surrounding the Salt Lake Valley, exploration west of the Oquirrhs is sure to provide you with a palpable sense of connectivity with our forgotten 19th-century wild-western past. At the very least, you will come across the disheveled rusted railway spikes, and the scattered animal bones that are evocative of it. The radiant and largely untouched natural beauty is something worth seeing.

Immersion into this incredible yet inhospitable expanse requires only preparation and consciousness; all else is scenery.

d.rees@wasatchmag.com

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Sun Tunnels and Spiral Jetty Provide Change of Scenery

For those who enjoy the outdoors and art, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty can be a nice change of scenery compared to your usual mountain adventures. Located on the Utah/Nevada border, the Sun Tunnels are roughly three and a half hours away. If you’re looking for something a little closer to our beloved city, the Spiral Jetty can be reached in under two hours as it sits on the northeastern part of the Great Salt Lake.

Holt’s four 18 foot long tunnels were installed in 1976 when she purchased a total of 40 acres for her contribution to the Land Art Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. It is as simple as typing in “Sun Tunnels” on Google Maps to find precise directions to getting there. It’s wise to download and/or print out your planned route just to be on the safe side, as well as to bring a GPS.

With two routes to choose from — one being only 10 minutes faster than the other — I chose to head west on I-80. This will take you past the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Keep in mind that you must leave no later than 5 p.m. to make it to the tunnels before sunset, and you must leave earlier if you need time to make any pit stops. As you pass through Wendover and take Exit 378 towards Oasis Montello, it’ll probably feel like you’ve been driving for an eternity.

Don’t worry, you’ll take that right turn after the exit, and after about 20 miles, you’ll enter this tiny little town called Montello. I highly suggest you top off your tank here, as gas can be a little pricey since it’s the middle of nowhere, and use the restroom. From there, you’ll notice several “road closed” signs, but don’t worry, you can go around those. After turning off the main paved road, you’re about 25 minutes out from the tunnels. The use of a GPS and downloaded trip plan is very helpful for the last stretch of dirt roads leading up to the tunnels. You’ll need it to find your way back to the main road after your experience with this famous piece of art.

The Spiral Jetty is a good option if you don’t have the time to trek the 100+ miles to the Sun Tunnels, but still want to enjoy some Utah land art. Smithson created this massive walkway in 1970, also as a part the Land Art movement.

Heading north on I-15, you’ll take Exit 365 towards Corrine. Take the opportunity to fill up there as there are no other gas stations for miles. After following the signs to the Golden Spike National Historic Site, turn left onto Golden Spike Road to the visitor center. Had too many snacks and drinks on the way? The GSNHS Visitor Center is your last hope, and it’s only open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Plan accordingly.

This is where cell phone reception goes out, too, which is why it’s wise to download and/or print out your planned route ahead of time, as well as bring a GPS along for added security. At this point, you’ll never appreciate road signs and paved roads more. After the visitors’ center, the main gravel road will take you west towards the middle of nowhere. Keep following this road for 5.5 miles, then take a right. Keep your eyes peeled for Spiral Jetty signs. They’re sparse, but they do exist. At this point, it probably feels like you’re lost, but there will be a T-junction, and you’ll take a right turn. The road will curve around Rozel Point for what seems like an eternity — 9 full miles — and will finally come to the end at a cul-de-sac where you can park.

a.duong@wasatchmag.com

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Trump Train Puts National Monuments on Trial

Another step in his fervent scramble to dissolve all measures undertaken to preserve the environment within the past three decades, President Donald Trump’s April 26 executive order prompted Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review — and potentially revoke — national monuments created since 1996. The results of Zinke’s review are recognized as a preliminary indicator as to how public lands are to be treated under the Trump administration. This heavy-handed exertion of government power, the president claimed in a speech made when he signed the Antiquities Act Executive Order, will “end another egregious abuse of federal power.”

Photo by Dalton Rees.

The national monuments now under scrutiny were designated by Theodore Roosevelt’s 1906 Antiquities Act, permitting the acting president to take unilateral action in the protection of natural resources and historical points of intrigue on federal land under threat. While federal land protected by this law remains entirely accessible for public, recreational use, commercial exploitation (i.e., mining, lumber work, and oil-drilling) becomes strictly prohibited.

A firm advocate of the commodification of nature, Trump asserted in the same speech,“The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time that we ended this abusive practice.”

During the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, a collective 26 monuments were ratified, and they will soon be under review. Choosing to retain a degree of ambiguity while approaching this sweeping review, Zinke suggested in an April 25 press briefing on that executive order that he will base his decision upon whether a respective designation had resulted in “loss of jobs, reduced wages, and reduced public access.” Zinke went on to assert that he is “not going to predispose what the outcome is going to be.”

This recent executive order has put Utah in the spotlight as Obama’s end-term designation of Bears Ears was evidently the initial inspiration for this move. The monument’s particularly extensive size has drawn immense criticism from Utah conservatives, for at over 2000 square miles, Bears Ears is currently over four-times the size of Canyonlands National Park, the largest in the state. Following the continual pandering of Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch and Gov. Gary Herbert, Trump directly asserted he was eager to reduce the boundaries of the 1.35-million-acre designation when signing his executive order. Recent events have indicated this wish is  likely to be brought to fruition.

After his definitive trip to the Bears Ears Monument, Zinke delivered a statement to Congress asserting the designation is “not the best use of the land.” He went on to recommend that Trump reduce the monument as to solely encompass the areas of historical and prehistorical intrigue, like residual cave dwellings, and archaeological sites. This recommendation remains purely sentiment until the president reaches his final decision in August following Zinke’s remaining 25 reviews, including that of Grand Staircase-Escalante.

For many environmentalists and tribal advocates of the designation, Zinke’s recommendation is perceived as a vulgar affront to the initial intentions of the monument, namely, respect for the five sovereign tribes holding sacred ties to the area, and conservation.

Adam Sarvana, a representative for Democrats on the House National Resources Committee, was reported in The New York Times as responding to Zinke’s recommendation for Bears Ears stating, “If you look at a map, that area is only about five percent of the monument area. … It seems like what they’re describing is a few stops on a boardwalk arcade, a few isolated areas, rather than a professionally conserved landscape the way national monuments are typically designated.”

Photo by Dalton Rees.

While Zinke’s recommendation did concede to permit additional protections in certain locations within the existing monument in the form of national recreation and/or conservation areas, it is clear that what the secretary is proposing entails a mass reduction of Bears Ears as we currently know it.

d.rees@wasatchmag.com

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Respect Our Parks

Peace and serenity, that’s what most people expect to find when they step out of their home’s threshold and into the wild. For over a hundred years now, the National Parks Service has stewarded millions of people from the geysers of Yellowstone to the big walls of Yosemite. While this is a great thing—public lands are meant for the whole public to enjoy—it comes at a cost.

Our parks cannot sustain this huge number of visitors without some serious infrastructure. Roads, buildings, bridges and any number of other such structures dot the entrances to nearly every popular park across the nation.

All these markers of man’s influence naturally detract from the main attraction of the park itself: unspoiled wilderness. Visitors don’t drive from Maine for food in Springdale. They come to see the inspiring cliffs towering over them in Zion Canyon, or to get their feet wet walking through The Narrows. The Grand Canyon is not famous because the lodge is the epitome of luxury. It’s famous because the view right outside the window will water your eyes and steal the words out of your mouth.

Of course, there is a balance here. We want our parks to be as accessible to everyone as they can be, but we must not forget what it is that has made them so splendid in the first place. So far, we have done a nice job maintaining this dynamic. Every year millions of people are able to come see the beauty these places bring.

As citizens of this country, we have a stake and ownership in these most awe-inspiring places. They are our public lands, a part of our identity as a nation and our heritage as a people. Protecting them is not merely the job of the green shirted men and women who work there, but the responsibility of every visitor who enters the gate.

Sadly, this is not always the case. Some of the most iconic spots in our parks are marked with ugly remains of thoughtless visitors. Atop one of the most pristine and famous lookouts in Zion, Angel’s Landing, a visitor will find names carved into the sandstone at their feet. They would be hard-pressed to walk three feet without being greeted by a pack of eager, and incredibly adorable, chipmunks begging for food, now dependent on humans for life as they have been trained not to forage on their own.

While these may seem small and trivial, the intent behind them and the sum of their effects is what is most troubling. If every hundredth visitor had carved their name on the summit of that most stunning Zion hike, there would be tons of marks distracting us from the beauty of what’s in front of our eyes.

Many years ago, our white predecessors walked into Zion Canyon and decided it to be a sacred place after it had been lived in by Native Peoples for years prior. For years since it has been protected. Our parents have visited and enjoyed the same landscapes that we now see today. As visitors to these parks, we too have an obligation to ensure our children can one day walk into Zion, or Yosemite, or Yellowstone and feel the emotional uplift of these stunning natural cathedrals. It comes down to every individual and our small actions. Do we respect our parks enough to not leave that soda tab on the ground or avoid carving our name into an Aspen?

 

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Keeping Little Cottonwood Clean for Future Generations

Rock climbing is one of those sports where you often get a lot of ridicule and backlash from surrounding communities and local politicians. Rock climbers are often seen as those who have no concern for the surrounding environment as we scale walls. The truth is quite opposite, however. With my many years of rock climbing experience under my belt, I have seen nothing but people who are the most conscious about the preservation of the environment, and more specifically, rock climbing itself. In Salt Lake City, you are bound to find these types of people everywhere you go. It is a blessing when the city of Salt Lake and its inhabitants find a way to give back to the rock climbing community. Recently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has formalized a relationship with the climbing community to secure almost 600 climbing routes and almost 150 boulder problems in Little Cottonwood Canyon, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Previously, the area now secured for rock climbers was privately owned by the Church with no access to climbing for almost 60 years when routes were first ascended. The area that has been recently opened is in the Gate Buttress, one of the most popular climbing areas in the canyon, and one of the most popular climbing areas in the state.

Personally, Gate Buttress is one of my favorite crags to climb due to its plethora of crack climbing routes with a wide range of route difficulty. Climbing routes range from anywhere between a rating of 5.7 all the way up to the 5.12 range. There are enough routes to cater to all climbing abilities, from the climber having their first outside experience to the seasoned veteran who knows all the climbs better than the back of their hand.

The best part about this relationship is the security of the area is open to the public for years to come. Future generations will be able to climb these walls just as those did before them for over a half century earlier.

In my years of going to Little Cottonwood, I have seen nothing but respect for the canyon by my fellow climbers. For example, I have seen several groups who have finished a long day of climbing hiking back down with backpacks full of trash to help clean up the area. I know of groups forming together online to meet up on weekends to perform trail maintenance. Keep in mind that this is all purely volunteer work and out of the kindness of their hearts to help see the preservation of the area and the sport. This being said, now that we as a climbing community have been granted the security of this world class climbing from those higher up, it is now our duty to help grant that security for the future.

In my honest opinion, I am not concerned. The climbing community has shown their support for the area, not only in Little Cottonwood Canyon, but also in all areas throughout the state for many decades. I am confident that this support will continue on the road ahead.

p.creveling@wasatchmag.com

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Opinion- Can We Really Leave No Trace?

I once took four pretty little rocks home from Goblin Valley State Park. The girl I was with, who took about seven rocks, told me she believed in No Trace Principles, but that, “we might as well enjoy nature before it’s gone because it’s disappearing anyway.”

Another time, I didn’t stop my friend as he lit a fire in the sand in Coyote Gulch. He didn’t burn anything large. He didn’t move any stones. He buried the ashes. His only justification being that he “really, really wanted to have a fire.”

Not long ago, my friends and I went to Escalante to do a single rappel in Egypt 3 Canyon in Escalante. We dragged along a rope because the canyon beta report said that there would be no need for webbing or any other equipment. Apparently, the anchor for the rappel was a natural arch that could be rappelled off double-stranded using only a rope. The beta assured us that we wouldn’t have to pull our rope and risk scarring the sandstone arch, but that we could double back on our way out of the canyon to retrieve our rope on the hike to the car. Once in the canyon, we reached a drop we thought might be the rappel, but we were skeptical. Were we supposed to set up the rope and rappel, at risk of abandoning our rope before reaching the actual rappel and being trapped in the canyon? Or were we supposed to use our rope to rappel the drop and pull it through the natural arch just in case we’d need it further down canyon—even though this would mean scarring the sandstone and leaving a blatant trace on the terrain? Ultimately, we elected to backtrack through the canyon, climbing out early and skipping the rappel altogether.

So how strictly exactly should we adhere to Leave No Trace Principles? Is it okay to collect crystals in national parks just like it’s okay to collect sea shells on the beach? Is starting a fire in Coyote Gulch really worse than starting one in the Uintas? When do you pull your rope and scar rock in order to conveniently navigate a canyon? And when do you pull your rope and scar rock in order to survive a canyon?

According to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, it’s impossible to leave absolutely no trace of your visit to the outdoors. And while LNT principles are intended to minimize human impacts on natural environments as much as possible, there is no way to leave zero trace. Just because my friend started a fire in Coyote Gulch doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about the outdoors—it doesn’t mean he should never be allowed to camp again or that he should start fires wherever he pleases. The whole reason for Leave No Trace is to preserve and protect both natural resources and the quality of recreational experiences. It is meant not only to keep the natural world as pristine as possible for its own sake, but also for its devoted recreators. It’s the golden rule of the outdoors—treat the wild spaces you grace as clean for others as you would want them to remain for yourself. So always carry your Wag Bags, never Bust the Crust, and if it comes down to it When In Doubt, Hike Back Out. But also, obsessive fear of leaving a trace is better than never leaving to explore at all.

c.simon@wasatchmag.com

Photo courtesy of Mia Gallardo

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Opinion: The Price I Paid for “Trespassing” on Public Lands

Arguably, there is no recreational activity more simple than walking outside. There’s no money, skills, or gear required besides a pair of shoes and maybe a walking stick and water bottle. That’s why I’m a tad bit flustered when my simple human activity of walking is cut short by bureaucracy.

Maybe it’s just me, but lately I’ve had some bad luck on my hiking excursions. I have a history of bagging little knolls and obscure neighborhood mountains that I can see from the valley, usually looking at the mountain from the ground, picking a route, and simply walking out from my front door. If there’s a fence in the way, I’ll hop it. If there’s a “No Trespassing” sign, I’ll falter for a second to make sure nobody’s around before hopping that one too. Only once have I been kicked off of private property for trespassing: a caretaker on a ranch in Montana intercepted me on my way down from the top of a little butte to escort me back to the fence. Fortunately, I was able to enjoy the view at the top before being run off.

This is a crazy concept to me in the U.S. Everyone wants their own little piece of land and threatening to protect it with guns is the norm. This isn’t the case in many other countries. Sweden has a general public idea called “allemansrätten” or “every man’s right” to roam on both public and private lands for recreational walking as long as it’s not destructive and is fairly respectful to privacy. This is an idea I can get behind. Not all of us can afford to buy up our own piece of land, and as there become more and more of us we need to be willing to reasonably share. Because of increasing private property, long public trails like the North Country Trail, for example, are becoming increasingly harder to build as land is constantly subdivided, limiting accessibility to wild places to previously established trails. The days of freely wandering the west are not the same anymore.

Here’s where I’m really irked, though: I was fined $280 for walking in a National Park, on public land. This reignited an ongoing thought of mine: U.S. National Parks, like protective private property, are not a reasonable way to share. In general, National Parks are based around tourists driving their cars through and pumping revenue into the area through pass purchases, gift shop sales, ritzy lodge resorts, boat tours, and expensive campgrounds. In National Parks, everything’s a competition from campsite reservations to permit lotteries to lines to read a sign at the visitor centers. There’s no parking at trailheads. You can’t mountain bike, paraglide, or fly drones. Oh yeah, and don’t forget you need a permit to walk.

I know it’s standard protocol to acquire a permit for backcountry camping in national parks. So, for our visit to Capitol Reef National Park, we planned to get our free permit from a visitor center in Glen Canyon Recreation Area.  Going to this visitor center avoided a five-hour detour to the out-of-the-way Capitol Reef Visitor Center. But, after 12 hours of driving,  we arrived at the beautiful (and brand new) expensive Bullfrog Visitor Center, only to be greeted by a locked door. After stressing about getting all of our backpacking gear, food, maps, and car logistics figured out, we failed to double check if a national park visitor center we were recommended to visit would actually be open midday on a busy spring weekend. There were no hours listed on the door, and after a call to the local dispatch and Capitol Reef, nobody could say when it would open next. The voicemail for the Bullfrog Visitor Center informatively stated it will open “as personnel become available.” For some odd reason the government can’t afford to pay someone to staff this brand-new million-dollar-plus visitor center to permit me to go on my walk. On top of that, the only ranger in the area that could possibly issue us a permit was more than three hours away on a boat on Lake Powell.

But wait, the bureaucratic mess gets worse. I asked the dispatch operator if Bullfrog had been open or a ranger available, we could have even obtained a permit from Glen Canyon in the first place. The definitive answer, after five minutes of cogs turning asking around in the government office system, was no. Contrary to what was stated online, told to us by Capitol Reef staff, and displayed at the trailhead, under no circumstance could we obtain a backcountry permit for Capitol Reef in Glen Canyon, a glaring miscommunication between the parks. So, I’m angry, because, after all of this effort on my side to follow the rules, I still received a $280 fine from the National Park Service for a “failure to obtain a backcountry permit.” The issuing NPS ranger only knew we were there because of our courtesy call as good people to let Capitol Reef know when and where we were going—more or less the entire purpose of a permit. Keep in mind, this was for hiking from of a trailhead with no other cars for three days, only seeing one other group of three the entire time.

There has to be a better way to all get along and be able to just go for a walk. The National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have it right. You can camp and hike just about anywhere in their jurisdiction and I think that’s how it should be on our wild lands. As long as we all maintain a mutual respect for each other and leave no trace during our excursions, let’s just keep it simple when we want to take a walk.

c.hammock@wasatchmag.com

Photos by Chris Hammock

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Up in Flames: Crews Prep for Wildfire Season

When April showers subside and May foliage is dried out by incessant sunlight, Utah firefighters brace themselves for another season of near-constant summer wildfires along the Wasatch Front and beyond. Wildfires occur on a sporadic, unpredictable basis, but their regimented human counterparts remain on-the-ready, prepared to address developing infernos at any hour and in any condition.

The environmental influences of fires, both wild and man-made, are a mixed bag. “Fire has positive and negative impacts on ecosystems,” explains Jason Curry, Public Information Officer for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands. “Historically, fire has been a key component of ecosystem health in the West. Fires keep vegetation from getting overgrown and keeps things in balance.”

With the continually increasing human population and temperature in Northern Utah, this equilibrium becomes disrupted profoundly. “Since the early 1900s, the role of fire has changed: instead of small fires keeping vegetation in check, we get large fires that do catastrophic damage to ecosystems,” Curry says. “If fire burns at a low pace, it’s generally a good thing. Extreme fire behavior is generally negative.”

There is ultimately no ideal rate at which wildfires should occur. Most agree with Curry when he says they should happen “as often as nature will allow.” However ardently Smokey the Bear attempted to instill his message over the years, humans still remain responsible for over 90 percent of wildfires (in Utah’s case the remaining 10 percent can be attributed to lightning and other natural anomalies). Between these, there will likely be a wildfire every day of the summer, and that is not natural.

Fortunately, most wildfires are controlled within the first hour or two, but every year, a handful slip through the cracks. A fire on Antelope Island last July burned a whopping 15,330 acres, and another 20,614 acres blazed in Northern Utah’s Broad Canyon the following month.

The awe-inspiring capabilities of firefighting teams are due to efficiently connecting a massive network of individuals. According to the Utah Department of Natural Resources, every incident begins in virtually the same way: A wildfire is reported through 911, the operator dispatches fire engines, and the call is referred on to one of five Regional Interagency Fire Centers (IFC).

The IFC dispatches all available local resources capable of combating the fire, regardless of affiliation. The first firefighters on scene initially take command and report back to the IFC to assess the complexity of the fire. “As the fire increases in complexity, command may be transferred to someone with higher qualifications and more expertise.”

The “complexity analysis” ranges from the less technical Type 5 through severe and technical Type 1. Type 4 and 5 are representative of around 98 percent of Utah wildfires and require little more than a handful of local personnel to effectively extinguish them. When a fire progresses to Type 3, it enters the realm of “extended attack,” requiring multiple days and the assistance of personnel from outside of the local area, around 200 collectively. At Type 2 or 1, a pre-formed Incident Management Team comprised of 20-40 “overhead personnel” from various agencies oversee the fire. That might mean several hundred personnel dedicated to fighting the fire over several weeks, if not months. They pull out all stops, from fixed-wing “Air Attack” platforms to 10-12 person “Helitack Crews,” helicopter bucket ships then can drop more than 2,000 gallons of fire retardant or water.

Utah is the only state, aside from Alaska, that has Hotshot Crews employed and managed directly by the state government — all others are recognized as federal resources. These elite teams (of which our state has two) are hand crews of 20 firefighters vigorously trained in wildfire suppression tactics and are distinguished by exemplary physical fitness, expertise, and the ability to tackle the most stressful and technical of situations.

Rising global temperatures and ever-multiplying irresponsible outdoorsmen correlate with increasing wildfires in our high desert state. Local firefighters vigilantly stand by, ready to protect Utah’s ecosystem and people from the most ravenous of elements.

d.rees@wasatchmag.com

Photo courtesy of FEMA

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Natural Medicine: Mending Wounds Through Outdoor Adventure Therapy

Stepping foot onto the Bonneville Shoreline Trail on a sunny Saturday afternoon means running into about as many people as you would at the grocery store on Thanksgiving Eve. But instead of people frantically sprinting between aisles, eyeing their list to check off every item, you’ll see bikers, hikers, and runners with child-like grins, breathing the fresh air of the Wasatch foothills.

Few would deny that nature is good for the soul, especially in a state where outdoor recreation brings in $12 billion in consumer spending and generates 122,000 direct jobs. Utahns love spending time outdoors. But recently, researchers, medical professionals, and therapists are showing that there is more going  on in the body and brain than we might think, and they are beginning to see lasting effects on some patients.

UNPLUG AND REWIND 

David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, began to study the effects of nature on the brain a few years ago, after noticing changes in himself when going outdoors.

“If [you] go on a river trip or a backpacking trip and are away for a while, you start to really think differently. Your senses are recalibrated, you notice things that you didn’t notice before,” he says. Now, he brings his classes away from technology and into the wild every year, measuring electrical activity in the brain with EEG scanners. What did he find? Nature boosts problem solving abilities, creativity, sense of well-being, and decreases stress levels and blood pressure.

When we are outside, away from our smart phones and email and the constant nagging of tasks in the back of our minds, we can rest the part of the brain that controls multi-tasking. The prefrontal cortex, as it is called, is like a muscle. It needs to rest and heal in order to give 100 percent later on. The glucose and glycogen energy stores are restored when you can quiet this part of the brain and go to default mode. It’s not that your brain just slows down though. The brain is actually more active, but in separate areas, like those activated by meditation.

Strayer can prove nature’s healing properties on a screen, but he’s also seen it firsthand. Enrolled students in his “Cognition in Nature” courses are frequently those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq after being on military tours. These students are often quiet and separate from the class, disconnected from the rest. But, as the trip continues, he sees them inch closer to others during group time and participate more and more.

“In one case, we came back to class the day after we got back from the desert and we all thought, ‘Who’s this guy sitting in the class?’ He had shaved off his beard and completely transformed. These are amazing transformations, and it happens on a regular basis.”

HEALING OUTDOORS

Psychologists and therapists are begginning to catch on the trend. At the National Ability Center in Park City, Craig Bryan, executive director for the National Center for Veterans Studies, runs a therapy program for PTSD victims that combines trauma-focused therapy sessions in the morning and recreational activities in the afternoon. While outdoor recreation alone doesn’t often have long-term recovery effects, therapy sessions and the outdoors are the perfect match.

“We use these outdoor activities for people to do things that elevate their mood. We provide opportunities to challenge the core beliefs of our veterans. Many of them ony think ‘I’m a failure. I screw everything up,’” he says. “In therapy we say, ‘Didn’t you just climb to the top of a mountain yesterday? How is it possible to climb a mountain if you can’t do anything right?’”

Since its start last year, the program has seen a 73 percent recovery rate of PTSD by the end of the two-week program. They are continuing to gather data in order to prove to the mental health community at large that there is some kind of healing power of the outdoors.

Wilderness adventure therapy can help those with other mental health issues too, be it trauma survivors, teens with mental disabilities, or addicts.  At some colleges, like Prescott College in Arizona, there are even adventure therapy majors available for students. Utah boasts perhaps the highest quantity of these therapy services.

Aspiro is one of these, taking teens on trips for eight to 12 weeks all over the state. Year-round, groups of six to eight individuals, ranging with problems from autism spectrum disorder, drug abuse, or depression, backpack through the desert or ski tour the Wasatch, says Joe Nagle, Adventure Facilliatation Trainer for Aspiro.

“Doing things that are difficult, especially things that you didn’t know you could do before, translates really easily to whatever you are coping with at home. We found a model that works with a broad range of students,” he says.

They grow in identity coherence, or the ability to know themselves and take pride in who they are, as well as gaining effective coping mechanisms. Pushing limits outdoors can be scary, but believing in yourself and then doing it makes you confident in your abilities.

Nagle knows that, like PTSD recovery, these changes are only possible through the combination of nature and therapy, but there’s no denying that nature is a necessary ingredient.

A PRESCRIPTION FOR NATURE

Stories abound about people stepping into nature to find healing. Most revelations recorded in scriptures happened outdoors just think of Moses on Mount Sinai, Jesus Christ in the wilderness, or Muhammad in the Cave of Hira. In ancient literature like The Odyssey, nature is part of the healing, says Stacy Bare, director of Sierra Club Outdoors.

Bare has been working with researchers, mental and public health professionals, and outdoor advocacy groups to bring the conversation back to the outdoors.

“People see, finally, that this is another way for preventative as well as treatable care,” Bare says. “We need to view our public lands as a public health care system. The benefits of getting outside are incredibly real.”

Park prescription programs are starting to emerge, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Outdoors Rx program, which prescribed active outdoor activity for children and adults suffering with obesity and high blood pressure. Bare himself found healing through climbing, hiking, and skiing after serving in the military for five years.

Stacy Bare skiing in Iraq this year. Photo courtesy of Stacy Bare.

Last year, Bare, Strayer, and others met at the White House to propose a plan to get people off drugs and into nature. Yes therapy and medication are important, but there is a natural healing element that happens when you smell a ponderosa pine or touch a trickling mountain stream.

After millennia of proof from poetry to films, the data is catching up. Nature changes us. And if you don’t believe it, take the advice from Henry David Thoreau. You’ll walk away feeling taller than the trees.

c.webber@wasatchmag.com

Photos courtesy of Aspiro Adventures

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