In the Lakota language of the Dakota people, the word Tunkasila literally means Grandfather. It comes from the root word tunkan, "stone,", and is also used to address Wakantanka, the Great Spirit, God for the Dakota people.
The word suggests the sacred union between natural phenomena like ancient stone formations and the spiritual forces they symbolize. Tunkasila is a beautiful concept, and nowhere is its truth seen more evidently than the wilderness areas of Utah. The breathtaking rock formations and the subtle, sublime ecosystems that have developed around them have taken thousands of years to form.
With a certain amount of human respect, they could remain as a sacred testament to the natural wonder of our country for millennia to come.
Unfortunately, this respect will not be found in the three places it is needed the most: the minds of the political leaders of Utah, the national energy oligarchy of oil and gas companies (which currently control our presidency), and many of those who use the Utah wilderness recreationally.
Utah state politics are run by the Republican Party, and the political theory informing many of the state's leaders hasn't changed since laissez-faire was en vogue a century ago. This backwardness makes it extremely difficult for preservation efforts to succeed at the local level.
The Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a pathetic history of bribed officials, worthless policy initiatives, ineffective enforcement of rules governing land use and protection, and the inability to maintain even a semblance of concern for the political task for which it was created.
One of the many duties the BLM has failed to fulfill is controlling off-road vehicle (ORV) use. As of now, there are virtually no restrictions on where ORVs can go, and the restrictions that are in place are not enforced. ORVs decimate the landscape over which they travel. They destroy plants and rare soil types, contribute to increased erosion, and frighten away animals.
Rather than viewing Utah's wilderness as sacred and inviolable, many ORV users think of the land in terms of hard core rock climbing routes, as well as high challenge obstacles to play on" (a quote taken from an actual ORV enthusiast). ORV users make up a relatively small proportion of those who enjoy Utah's wild lands, but they are ruining it for everyone by their noise pollution and the blights on the landscape their "playgrounds" have become. Unfortunately, BLM has consistently failed to control the damage.
While the destruction ORVs have wrecked is tragic enough, it pales in comparison to the large-scale devastation envisioned by our nation's oil and gas companies. When the heads of oil and gas companies turn their penetrating stare to the wilds of Utah, they do not a sacred natural monument, but simply dollar figures, in the form of oil rigs, drill pads, and access roads.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is that the Bush administration (which has yet to demonstrate an interest in any cause other than the continued well-being of entrenched energy trusts) has forwarded a policy of drilling in the most beautiful wilderness areas first, in order to prevent them from later being protected.
Fortunately, there remain at least a small minority of voices in this country that demand that the mindless destruction of our natural lands is halted. These voices have coalesced in the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Utah Wilderness Coalition, and a number of other organizations around the country.
The primary goal of these groups is passage of the America's Redrock Wilderness Act, which will grant federal protection to public lands the BLM has failed to protect. Though they are in Utah, these lands are a national treasure, and if the fight to save them must be broadened, then Americans everywhere must join the cause.
If you would like more information, please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org), or go to www.suwa.org or www.uwcoalition.org.
Together we can raise these lands to the status of Tunkasila that they deserve.