A Bit of a Riff on Rockville

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Alma Cox by Michael Plyler

Below are my thoughts and answers to questions posed by Utah State graduate student Tori Edwards on southern Utahand Rockville’s sense of place and history of human/landscape interaction. Would love to hear your thoughts and comments.

Tori Edwards: I’ve been intrigued with the idea that the pioneers who settled Springdale andRockville didn’t appreciate the beauty of the landscape around them, and I’m trying to figure out where this idea came from. I know that the area was very difficult to derive sustenance from, as evidenced by journal entries from early settlers in St. George. I also know that there was some resentment among the early settlers when Zion was established as a National Park, so I’m wondering if the idea originated around this time.

Greer: That is a big topic! One of the initial reasons for the Pioneer Voices Project was to discover if there was a link between early settlers and Zion’s natural environment. Each interview followed the same format, and most questions were about memories of “nature” interactions. The people I interviewed did not recount strong “nature” associations except Evan Cox who seems to be one of those people who feels connected to nature. Although the project’s original intent was to find and expose pioneer nature associations, so little was found that the final book changed to recounting memories of lifeways and family.

I think some of the dichotomy you’re investigating comes from individual differences. People originally came here for a different purpose than they come now. Zion now attracts people 1) who come to tick off another scenic view/American Icon, etc., or 2) have a personal connection with “nature.” The people who came in the 1800s were 1) sent whether they wanted to come or not, or 2) were looking for some place to make a living. The mindset was very, very different. Though things were not as desperate as often portrayed, things were critical (this was not the horrible harsh desert vs. man, but the land still had to provide). A flashflood, a summer without rain, etc., were life-defining. I don’t think, for the most part, from the talks I’ve had with folks, that the area’s beauty was paramount. I think they noticed, I think they appreciated, but I don’t think, unless they had that special nature connection, that they felt what many coming now might feel. Just like in any modern community anywhere—some people connect to the land, others don’t. I did not get the impression Mormonism conveyed land management precepts (and that was a questionnaire question). When all one’s food and livelihood comes from the land, I believe people will do almost anything without regard for what problems it might cause to the “environment,” or even to their own livelihood in ten years.

In the research I did for the Grand Staircase—Escalante book, I found an interesting dichotomy between ranchers interviewed in the 1930s and their modern descendants. At least ONE rancher interviewed in the 30s (WPA, etc.) stated in detail how he realized cattle had destroyed the land. He recounted how his predecessors had found tall, lush grass covering the “desert,” and how without knowledge or seeming concern, they had systematically grazed everything beyond recovery. This may have been because settlers were not familiar with the desert’s fragility. He felt responsible and felt the entire area should be made a national park as it was beautiful and now mostly unusable for much else. (The Escalante area was horribly destitute in that time; it’s amazing people survived there at all).

What I witnessed in Southern Utah when I arrived in the 1980s (and still see vestiges of today) was a total defense of past practices by men who inherited them, regardless of any refuting science. This was saddening as it seemed better land management practices could improve the degradation, and thus, husbandry. But what prevailed was a staunch, unrelenting defense of a total way of life which may have been bolstered by feelings of an assault on community, faith, lifeway, etc. That was when acts of willing destruction of wilderness values and “nature” occurred regularly, and which can still be seen in the strong reaction to environmental groups, restrictions, legal challenges, etc.

By the mid-1900s, I think people also began to realize they could make a living from visitors. I don’t see where that made them more inclined to bask in or preserve the area’s beauty, i.e., no one proposed more preservation, but more development. In researching a Bryce book, I discovered that initially, there was support for creating national parks in Utah from Utahans, but that quickly reversed. There was a fight to create every park in Utah even in the early 1900s. There has long been a sense of “it’s OURS” here, and potential loss doesn’t seem to revolve around destruction of what’s natural, but around loss of potential use. Notice that MOST of those who fought for park establishment (not just here) were not from here. It was often the amazement of new eyes that fueled park creation. It may have been something as simple as long-term habituation that dulled the area’s amazement to inhabitants, and certainly to those born here and for whom a week-long wagon trip to St. George was a looooonnng way. They didn’t really know the rest of the world didn’t look like this!

As to your specific questions:

Tori: “The question is about the pioneers who settled Southern Utah, and their attitudes regarding the environment. I’ve been intrigued with the idea that the pioneers who settled Springdale and Rockville didn’t appreciate the beauty of the landscape around them, and I’m trying to figure out where this idea came from. I know that the area was very difficult to derive sustenance from, as evidenced by journal entries from early settlers in St. George. I also know that there was some resentment among the early settlers when Zion was established as a National Park, so I’m wondering if the idea originated around this time. But there are also conflicting ideas I’m trying to figure out: 1) The early pioneers settled the area with the principle of stewardship ingrained into their minds–to take care of the land they were given.”

Greer: From the interviews done on the Pioneer Voices project, I do not believe this to be true, as I’ve stated in more detail above. That was one of the goals of the project, and you might want to scan the interviews to see if I’m misrepresenting this, but as I recall, when asked, people stated there was no land-management guidance from the church. Biological evidence from all over Utah certainly supports the claim that the land was used as much as possible, probably changing it forever.

Tori: “2) The descendants of those early pioneers defend their ancestors, saying they did appreciate the beauty of the area, as evidenced in Pioneer Voices of Zion Canyon.”

Greer: I think again, you are looking at two overlapping ideas: appreciation and preservation. As we know, one can appreciation something and still destroy it. I appreciate an ice cream cone, and now I’m going to eat it! We cannot really know what someone thought, the feelings they had unless they express them in some way. For example, they wrote it down, they said it aloud, they made art of it, they created a monument, etc. So the pioneers may have “appreciated the area’s beauty,” but unless they physically expressed that in some way, we cannot know. One way they might have expressed it was by setting aside a “do not use” area. As far as we know, they did not. But then, it would have been astonishing if they had. If you study the national park idea you’ll realize that Zion was one of the first areas set aside under this “new idea” of national parks. I did a program for the Chicago Humanities Program a couple years back—and Ken Burns has done a similar program on America’s Best Idea—national parks. So the folks in Zion in 1909, when Mukuntuweap was set aside as a monument, had NO IDEA what was going on. The NPS wasn’t even created until 1916; what was this national monument thing?? What it was, was CHANGE, that awful beast, and regulation in a largely unregulated area. You must remember that everyone interviewed from then on looks back from a perspective of knowing what national parks are, what they’re for, and what they represent (both ideologically and financially!). Everyone who has lived here since 1909 or thereabouts has benefitted financially from the park, whether it’s in direct payment for services or in something as seemingly intangible as perpetually high property values.

Tori: “Also, Stephen Mather, who helped establish Zion as a national park, reported that the people who lived there at the time were good to work with, and generally cooperative. If there was animosity, and if Mather believed the settlers didn’t appreciate the beauty of the land, I would think he would have stated so.”

Greer: I don’t. One must consider the source: Mather was an extremely successful business man, a political animal, and a consummate public relations expert. He would not have said otherwise. In that year, he was trying to gain support not only for this park, but the National Park Service and every other national park being created then or in the future, and for unpopular regulations being implemented. This was part of a much larger and more important movement then only just getting started. He had to make the case for this park locally AND nationally. This went, as these things still do, waaaaay beyond the local.

Tori: “Yet, it seems to make the most sense that the idea of the settlers not appreciating the beauty of the area would have originated around the time of the Park being established. The reason I say this is because of a quote in Pioneer Voices (p. 83):

 “There was an erroneous rumor that went around for years. You used to hear that ‘the natives, they don’t appreciate the park, we’ve got to get in there and preserve it so they don’t destroy it. They want places to farm, they don’t want a park to look at.'”

Greer: Well, there’s always truths in statements like this, aren’t there? Which truths? There is the truth in the original statement, that people did resent the park, they did want places to farm (remember, it was a totally different economy then), they didn’t see the value in this new-fangled park thing, whatever it was (they had NEVER been to or heard of a national park!). And then there is truth in the idea that some people didn’t have that view. Look up esp. J.L. Crawford’s interview. His mother (grandmother?) sold the farm to the park and moved; J.L. says she both resented (losing the trees she’d planted and nursed all those years) and understood it. And there is truth in a descendant stating previous versions of the story are flawed, “My ancestors did too see the beauty! They weren’t heathens!” (i.e., and thus, neither am I).

I’m unsure your question is the right question, or that there is an answer. I think what we can say with some confidence is that reactions and interactions with “nature” are hugely complex and certainly intertwined. We, as humans with feelings and as animals trying to survive, have intense and often opposed needs from the same plot of land. These needs shift over both long and short time periods: from physical sustenance to the comfort of a known place, a “home,” to a need for adventure and a foe to test oneself against, to the crucible of a nature spirituality and personal regeneration, and not insignificantly, a biotic sanctuary for the other-than-human and a gene pool for the future. A lot of demands from one little landscape!

One last tiny clarification, I do not think the destruction of southern Utah’s natural environment was wanton, but rather an unintended consequence.

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