Over 7,000 individuals and organizations felt strongly enough about the San Rafael Swell to provide written comments during the public comment period on motorized recreation travel plan alternatives.
Several graduate students worked with me on an independent project to read, organize, and analyze these comments. It was an interesting and enlightening experience that could fill several columns, but here I'd like to focus on one small aspect that captured my interest.
In scouring the comments I was particularly interested in the experiences that people shared. My belief is that opinions and perceptions (in this case for or against limiting motorized access) emanate from, or are rooted in, personal experiences. And in the 1,283 unique comments (over 6,000 comments were identical faxes of two different letters), people shared numerous experiences.
In pondering these experiences I couldn't help but notice that many pro-vehicle access comments centered on family experiences, while comments seeking to limit vehicle access and expressing pro-wilderness views centered more on individual or solitary experiences.
This led me to wonder why pro-motorized opinions were much more likely to be attached to experiences with families, and conversely, why views that stress limiting vehicle access and promote wilderness designation often relate to personal rather than family experiences in the backcountry?
What does this pattern mean? Is it that families are more important to off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, while those seeking to limit motorized access are selfish, anti-family loners? Or is it that families care less for the environment and are thus more callously destructive?
While these and other quick assumptions are easy to make, especially in the current polarized atmosphere that surrounds public land use in Utah, I think these connections would be largely in error-a conclusion I came to after considering my own experiences.
I have three young children, and we often spend time in the San Rafael Swell and on other public land-it's among our favorite activities. I am also an avid kayaker, hiker, canyoneer, and solitude seeker. These two sides of my life are difficult to mesh together. Or in other words I can't usually pursue both at the same time and in the same place.
When we head out as a family, the internal combustion engine is a major player. Though my boys like to hike, the hikes aren't lengthy-in fact we often don't lose sight of the car. So in addition to our short foot forays we drive around in our four-wheel drive and explore rugged vehicle routes.
We also have a motorcycle, and the boys love to jump on back and go for a ride. With three active youngsters the engine is often a valuable entertainer for exhausted parents. As a young boy I spent considerable time riding motorcycles in American Fork Canyon with my father.
However, on other occasions I leave the kids behind due to the nature of what I want to experience. Along with three other guys I kayaked the upper Black Box the last time there was enough water in the San Rafael River. This technical run was exhilarating, challenging, and at times frightening. In the end a broken paddle below submarine falls (aptly named due to the likelihood of a kayaker disappearing under the foaming white water for a several seconds) led to the group free-climbing out of the canyon near the waterfall (or rock fall to those who visit in drier times).
A year later my brother and I rappelled in at the same spot and hiked the canyon-an experience that required a few swims despite the relatively low water.
Obviously I could never have pursued these activities with a passel of small children in tow.
This past summer while living in East Africa I was faced with a dilemma, I had enough time and resources to do one of two activities. I could either take a week to climb to the 19,340 foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro alone, or I could take the kids and spend five days on safari in the Ngorongoro Crater and on the Serengeti Plains. I chose the safari, and we had five wonderful days of up close wildlife viewing from our car. In fact we spent nearly every waking moment in the car-both out of obedience to the rules and a desire not to lose a kid to a hungry hyena.
A year earlier I was fortunate enough to be in central Borneo with a colleague that was agreeable to a "research" trip into the new and rather remote Bentung Kerihun National Park. After driving a car for two days from Pontianak to Putusibau we left the car and most signs of humanity behind and carefully loaded our gear and bodies into a tipsy long boat (essentially a carved out wooden canoe) captained by an old Ibadan guide.
The upper reaches of the Kapuas river were swollen from rain, and darkness hit long before we were at our desired location. As we continued in near total darkness my focus shifted from trying to keep my gear dry to positioning myself so that nothing would ensnare me if the boat flipped over and I was forced to swim to the distant and almost indiscernible shore.
We did make it to our destination that night, and the next day we went further up the tributaries and even walked along the shore as the long boat fought its way past rapids. Later we hiked through thick jungle on steep hillsides, pausing here and there to pull opportunistic leeches from bloodied legs. While deep in the jungle I even cracked a couples of ribs but refused to let it dampen my fun until I was back in a Putusibau hotel where I could properly moan.
So why relate all these experiences? What do they have to do with public comments on the motorized recreation in the San Rafael Swell?
Well, for me public lands offer a bundle of experiences, and we should do our best to preserve them allÃ¯Â¿Â½and not necessarily for two distinct groups. Sometimes those who take the family out for a motorized weekend are the same folks who also head out alone in search of places that vehicles don't go-I know of many others like me.
Looking over the completed travel plan I see numerous places where I can drive with the kids or even go for a motorcycle ride alone, as well as a number of places where I can get away from it all and use the danger and difficulty as an excuse to leave the kids behind. I'm pretty sure that in a dozen or so years the tables will be turned, and my boys will be leaving dad behind as they seek their own adventures.
Vigorous public involvement will help make the breadth of individual experiences available as a tool in land use planning. Hopefully this will lead to the preservation of opportunities that I have been fortunate enough to experience, both on my own and with my family.