I finally asked my mom if she would talk about her suicide attempt in order to understand the perspective of someone who gets to that point. This last summer suicide rates of wildland firefighters made the headlines and with such a long and devastating fire season, it seemed to add insult to injury for those in the community.
Wildfire Today and The Atlantic both ran in-depth pieces on the epidemic. I ran the numbers and they are staggering: Between 2015 and 2016, 28 firefighters died on the job. During that same period 52 firefighters took their own lives. Numbers do not lie and these numbers reveal that more firefighters die by suicide than by fire.
I wanted to address mental health and suicide at work, I wanted to get people talking about it to help remove the stigma that only the weak or selfish take their own life; hoping that perhaps if we try to understand, maybe we won’t judge and thereby provide a safe place for people to talk about what has caused them to reach a point of no return. But in order to do that I needed to try to understand myself.
I was touched by suicide when I was 25 years old after my mother almost succeeded at taking her own life. We’ve never talked about it. I don’t know why I have been so afraid to ask her about it but I figured it was time. I needed to understand. To my surprise she had no problem talking about it – seemingly eager to tell her story. Maybe she’s been waiting for an opportunity to be understood.
After my mom graduated from law school she got a job in the Utah Attorney General’s Office as an assistant attorney general. She was also teaching law classes at the University of Utah. Her and my dad were divorced and me and my three other siblings lived with my dad, but mom was around a lot. She had latitude with her work schedule working for the State. She was flying high – she had a great and prestigious job, she had flexibility, she had a successful boyfriend who was also a lawyer that she thought she might marry, and she had aspirations of running for office – she seemingly had everything; the sky was the limit. Until she flew too close to the sun.
The Utah Medical Association offered her a job. Life was moving fast. She couldn’t believe how great it was; surely being the attorney for the Utah Medical Association would propel her to the pinnacle of her career. She was warned by an associate not to take it, certain she would hate it. Her father suggested she let him negotiate her salary and told her not to take anything below $100,000. She didn’t listen to anyone because she knew what she was doing, it was a strategic move for her and her career – it was a prestigious private sector job. If she could hack this, she could take on the world. She took the job for $11,000 more than she was making, which was roughly $80,000.
The glamour and allure wore off fast. The new job did not have the flexibility or independence that the government job did. She could not work early and leave early, she was required to be with her bosses all the time, to have a cell phone so that they could get a hold of her, and then she started to have to work nights and weekends.
It was then that she began to feel like she was suffocating, like a noose had been placed around her neck and was tightening. No longer was she able to see her kids when she wanted to, she didn’t have time for her boyfriend; she didn’t have time for anything but work.
One night she did the math on her salary and the hours she was working and it amounted to little more than minimum wage. The warnings and suggestions she had heard before she took the job came back to haunt her. She had not done her research and now she was trapped. Her life became fragmented; she was losing control of it and watched helplessly as pieces of it started drifting away. For a professed control freak, this was terrifying. She started having anxiety attacks. It was a gradual sequence of events that led her there, but once she got there it sped up and her life spiraled out of control.
I had recently gotten out of the military and was going to school at what was Dixie State Community College in St. George at that time. I was living in my mom’s second home that she rented out to single women. I didn’t know at the time that something was wrong but I took a trip to Mexico with my mom and an old boyfriend hers that she had gotten back together with after her and her other boyfriend broke up. She wasn’t herself. She seemed scared and nervous which was completely the opposite of her normal state of being. Me and my brother blew it off as weird and didn’t think about it beyond asking, “What’s wrong with mom?”
A year later I had moved to Salt Lake City and was going to Salt Lake Community College. I went to visit my mom at work – I’d never seen her office. While we were talking she told me she couldn’t breath and took her chair outside to sit in the parking lot. Admittedly, it was strange but then again, my mother never liked being inside so it was kind of normal. I was still a little confused by her behavior and didn’t know how to respond to her telling me that she felt like she was suffocating in the building. It never occurred to me she was in trouble.
Years later when I was talking to one of my aunts, she told me that my mom was talking about suicide to them. They took her to a behavioral health hospital because they thought she was suffering from depression. The doctors gave her anti-depressants. As someone who doesn’t like to be out of control, she didn’t want to take the pills, but I think she did take them. Later it was discovered that she was suffering from anxiety not depression.
At this point she had married a long-time boyfriend and was living in Midway, Utah. She lost a worrisome amount of weight and was not herself at all. She said she had been told she had a life threatening brain disease. With this news she started to wonder what it had all been for. Why had she left her family and her kids to go to law school and then work a job that became a prison if she was just going to die anyway? She had given up what mattered most to her for something she thought had a higher purpose, that was bigger than her – a heroic life – only to find out that it wasn’t worth it in the end.
She started to look at what she had to leave us kids. She had $15,000 in the bank. She wrote notes to all us where she left all she had to us (I never saw the letters), took her bottle of pills and drove to Deer Creek Reservoir and swallowed them all. She thought what she was doing was a loving act not to make us go through the long process of watching her die only to leave us with nothing.
For some reason she drove back to the house. She says she remembers it being very scary because of all the medications she had taken. Her husband rushed her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. When I got the call he was sobbing and told me what happened. He explained how she went into convulsions and only survived because the pills were time released. The doctors said that if the pills had all released at the same time she would have died.
I was in shock. I drove to Midway though I don’t recall why or what I did. All I remember is seeing the man who for all intents and purposes was a second father to me, sitting out behind his barn on the ground bawling – his eyes bloodshot, the life drained out of him.
The next day I had to go to school. I cried all the way there. I remember sitting in the parking lot and thinking that if I let myself feel this, my world would fall apart too. I wiped the tears away, pushed my feelings beneath the surface, went to class, and never let myself feel it again.
At the time I had just started dating my husband. We were in a long distance relationship and he would fly from Georgia to Utah to see me or vice versa. We were sitting in Barnes and Noble in Salt Lake City on one such visit and he asked me if I was okay. I said, “I’m not a glass doll, I won’t break.” In retrospect that seems like such a calloused thing to say, but in reality, it was a defense mechanism against the fear of falling into a void I was afraid I would never be able to climb back out of.
My mother was transferred to the LDS Behavioral Health Hospital. I recall only going to visit her there once. She was lying in the hospital bed and didn’t seem aware of my presence. I tried talking to her but she wouldn’t respond, staring straight through me. She looked empty as if she had succeeded at killing herself but her body hadn’t registered it yet. I wanted to hold her hand or lay down with her and hug her, hold her tight, but I couldn’t do it. The person in front of me was not the strong, fearless, larger-than-life woman I had known all my life – the person in front of me was a stranger.
I didn’t know how to reach her. I didn’t know what to say or do. I’d never been taught what to do with pain and suffering and so I sat there frozen and terrified. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt, certain I should be doing something but not knowing what, and thinking that I was a worthless daughter. So I just kept putting one foot in front of the other in order to survive myself.
What transpired after that is a blur. I got married, moved away, and started a family of my own. My sister got out of the Air Force and her and my brothers tried picking up the pieces while trying to find their own way in life. Mom never recovered. She had a mental break that left her in a perpetual loop of regret and agony. She became a ghost, an empty shell, a person without a purpose, living because – what choice did she have?
I don’t know if the suicide attempt caused my mother brain damage or if she already had some form of mental illness that was camouflaged by her success that would have eventually revealed itself in time, but mental illness is the only way to describe what happened to her. She bounced around for years living with family members who would take care of her until worn out and then pass her off to someone else. She did not take care of herself and engaged in erratic and disturbing behavior that left her and the family routinely dealing with the police. Mom was supposed to be taking medications but wouldn’t and the family couldn’t make her.
Roughly eight years later I moved back to southern Utah. While my mom didn’t live with us, we took her on and spent a lot of time with her. This was when I started to see a change in her; she seemed to be getting better. I don’t know if it was having me close or if it was my children, or if it was a combination of things but she found a desire to live again and started getting better – not whole, but better.
When we talked on the phone she told me she was so glad she didn’t succeed at killing herself and that even though she is homeless, she loves life. She wondered aloud if idealistic people were at a higher risk for suicide than others. She queried further if people who work “heroic” jobs, who witness destruction, loss, and ugliness in life – as well as heroic, bigger-than-life events that they are a part of – or those who have to choose between that life and people they value or who lose their “heroic” status – are at a higher risk. She told me that she definitely saw her work as heroic, as noteworthy – but that when that heroic world started to crumble, her idealism crashed with it.
She explained that it wasn’t one thing, it was a sequence of events that all collided at once and left her feeling fragmented, her life seemingly in shards that she couldn’t seem to put back together. While my mother’s story is her own and I am certain people have many reasons and different triggers that get them to that point, I’m also certain there is a common strand between all of them.
I am now the same age my mother was when she tried to end her life. I have never contemplated suicide but I lived long enough to question what it is all for, to wonder what the point is. I have taken the hard knocks of life and as Stephen King said, I’ve seen time begin its stealthy and rotten subtractions. I know what it is like to lose interest in things that used to bring value and joy to my life, and force myself to keep doing them, hoping the joy and fulfillment will return. I know what it is like for kids be the only reason to keep going and do what must be done and I know what it is like to long for close friendships and community and not have the energy to reach out and maintain, establish, or build it while enviously watching others who have. This is all without a collision of destabilizing events.
I thought of my season on the engine, the high stress, high camaraderie, fulfilling, and fun work and then the denouement that followed at the end of fire season that left me lost and off balance when I returned to normal life. It took me a good two months to recover and find meaning in life outside of my job. I still struggle with it and that was one season. I can only imagine a career of it year after year with all that life throws at you – potential problems or stresses at home, perhaps unhappy spouses, or no support and loneliness waiting at the end, illnesses or injuries that end the job, medical expenses that lead to bills and debt, time away from children – or just trying to find value outside of a high-value job.
As my mother talked I thought of a conversation I had with my boss who talked to me about the stresses of of being a wildland firefighter and warned me of the strain it puts on a marriage, telling me to take care of the home life. He said, “There are a lot of divorced firefighters.” He then went on to say, “You never know what a coworker is going through, you may never know that one of them is living out of a car – let me know if you are struggling so that I can help okay?”
What he didn’t tell me was that fire is an escape from the worries of life, that for brief, adrenaline-filled periods you have a single purpose where the cares of the world fall away and, as Steinbeck said, “…a kind of glory lights up the mind like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then -the glory- so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished,” – until it ends and everything turns back to gray. What my boss didn’t tell me was how hard it would be to get by in the day-to-day stretches of time after the glory had faded.
I asked my mom if there was anything anyone could have said or done to help her, any intervention that would have kept her from veering toward suicide. She wasn’t sure and said she would have to think about it. *
My mother was strong, fierce, and full of life – I still see her that way but perhaps more realistically now, more human; definitely fragile, breakable. Perhaps that is where we go wrong with people, we don’t allow them to be completely human – we don’t pay attention when they are living in the gray.
Perhaps the stigma of being weak if you are struggling with circumstances that appear to be a result of poor choices is what causes people to go it alone. Or maybe there is something insidious to the culture of rugged individualism where you are told to pull up your bootstraps and push through it despite needing help, and as a result, there’s a fear of sharing just how bad a shape you are in. And then there’s sharing your mental fitness with others – the trust required and vulnerability that would follow such an admission, combined with the very real possibility of repercussions for letting people know the truth, could be a strong deterrent to that kind of honesty.
I am just taking stabs in the dark but I have to believe there are answers. Why is suicide so astronomical, especially among veterans, police, and firefighters? Why do “heroes” kill themselves? Why does anyone?
Furthermore, what makes a life worth living? What can we do for those who think theirs isn’t? What can we do if we think our own life isn’t worth living? It’s possible there are answers if we are willing to look, if we are willing to enter uncharted territory where answers are uncomfortable, don’t come easy, and where when they do, they’re hard to grapple with. I’m willing to go there and listen to find out. Are you?
If you want to talk or share you can contact me here.
*My mother has since told me that being given the statistics of suicide among children of parents who have committed suicide might have kept her from trying.
When Donald Trump was running for office in 2016, a recording of comments he made about his fame and power being so all-encompassing that he could just grab a woman’s pussy surfaced. Unlike his more prevalent modus operandi of denial and counter accusations, he did not deny having said it. He summed it up as locker room talk that was inappropriate. This may be the closest thing to contrition he has ever done.
Here in Utah, the predominant Mormon culture denounced him and his bid for the presidency. I recall Mayor John Pike posting about it on Facebook saying he could not be president and implying his support for Evan McMullin.
It appeared — on the surface at least — that in spite of being one of the reddest and most fundamentalist conservative states in the union, the Mormons by and large had a moral code which would not abide supporting such a man regardless of the desire to have a republican in the Oval Office.
Comedian and political commentator Bill Maher even lauded Utah on his show, saying, “How about the Mormons?” As outspoken as he is about the absurdity of the claims of all religions, he seemed to be momentarily impressed that perhaps there was a line that could not be crossed with them.
I remember saying to myself in response to Maher, “Don’t count on it.”
This is because, in my own experience living in Utah, I have come to understand the duplicitous nature of this culture intimately and first hand. I doubted (and would eventually be affirmed in that doubt) that the election results would demonstrate that said line even existed. Roughly half (45.5 percent) voted for Trump.
This is anything but an anti-Mormon rant. It is an uttering of bewilderment at the sheer hypocrisy of the conservative religious right. It is a belaboring of the painfully obvious fact that religion and its claims to having the final word on moral authority have been hijacked for the purposes of greedy men and women.
And one would need look no further than the example of the moral ground laid in the 2016 election versus the election results to see this.
After all, Trump was the Will of God incarnate for the legislators of this pristine state to at last have a shot at what they have been fighting for since they arrived in the original territory just a little more than 100 years ago: the right to claim for themselves what was never theirs and do as they please with what does not belong to them — public lands.
Prior to the last year, any attempts at gaining control of land that belonged to every American was stopped in its tracks by long-standing court precedents and legislation such as the Antiquities Act, the Federal Land Management and Policy Act, and even the Taylor Grazing Act. What were tantamount to nothing more than rally cries fortified by frivolous lawsuits and acts of childish behavior with deadly consequences were seemingly validated by Trump’s illegal decision to rescind the newly appointed Bears Ears and Escalante National Monuments.
In no less than a week’s time from Trump’s announcement, Utah legislators began to introduce bills to paper over the illegal act, making it veritable law of the land. This has been their hope all along: to take hold of land that does not belong to them under the guise of being better stewards of it only to sell it to the extractive industries, though they deny it.
Adding to the hypocrisy is the constant bemoaning by Utah legislators of federal government overreach and the need for independence contrasted with the copious amount of federal money the state takes. In fact, in a bill proposed to allow a self-governing national park, they will still require federal money to run it in the form of taxes paid by every American who rightfully owns that land.
At present, multiple lawsuits have been brought forth to challenge Trump’s sweeping illegal move and interestingly enough just this week a motion was made to have the venue for these cases to be heard moved from Washington D.C. to a federal court in Utah.
Duplicitous as they may be, I will say that they are cunning. This was a masterfully played hand that could set into motion a chain of events leading to the abolition of federal land management agencies altogether as well as public lands.
Careful what you ask for, Utah. Because the master you serve is not a benevolency at all but rather serves the corporate machinations of greedy and merciless people who have feigned sympathy for your plight in order to steal the birthright of every American. The day will come when you realize the Pandora you have been played for and the box you will not be able to close.
See you out there.
Originally published in the Southern Utah Independent.
The government has shutdown over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, or so it seems. Many democrats are asking, why this of all the issues they could bargain with? Many republicans, including the President, are suggesting that democrats care more about illegal immigrants than our military. Perhaps, however, the better question is, why are republicans holding strong against 800,000 children who were brought here by parents escaping horrible living conditions in their own countries? It seems a small compromise for republicans to make and a cruel and unnecessary demonstration of inhumanity to insist on holding our budget and government hostage unless we deport them.
Our government is a republican form of government, not a straight democracy. A republic places limits on the government by the law to protect minority rights. This means that certain inalienable rights cannot be taken away by the government even if a majority elects them into office. A pure democracy is “rule by the omnipotent majority.” In a democracy, an individual, and any group of individuals composing any minority, have no protection against the unlimited power of the majority. It is a case of Majority-over-Man. For those who do not like the federal government to have too much power or control over their lives, this is the check against it. It alone is what stops mob rule. This is important because any of us could at some point in time be in the minority, whether race, religion, or political affiliation.
I don’t know why democrats are insisting on making DACA the lynch pin of passing the budget but it may very well be because it’s the right thing to do. Those children did not ask to be brought to this country illegally; they more than likely had no choice in the matter. In this country we generally believe that parents know best what is good for their children and would support the parents’ decision in almost any other situation.
Congress recognized that these children should not be penalized for the actions of their parents and therefore set about coming up with a solution for them. It’s the humane and ethical thing to do. The Dream Act Bill was first proposed in Congress in 2007, then again in 2011, and then after a lot of work, passed in 2013.
What the Dream Act Bill created was immigration policy, DACA, that that allowed some individuals who entered the country as minors, and had either entered or remained in the country illegally, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. As of 2017, approximately 800,000 individuals – referred to as Dreamers after the Dream Act Bill – were enrolled in the program created by DACA. These people willingly enrolled in this program.
According to the Journal of Public Economics, research has shown that DACA increased the wages and labor force participation of DACA-eligible immigrants, and reduced the number of unauthorized immigrant households living in poverty. Studies have shown that DACA increased the mental health outcomes for DACA-eligible immigrants and their children.
To address the issue of American job loss, there are no known major adverse impacts from DACA on native-born workers’ employment and most economists say that DACA benefits the U.S. economy. The loss of immigrants, however, could negatively impact our economy. And last, to be eligible for the program, recipients may not have felonies or serious misdemeanors on their records. In other words, these are good kids who will become good citizens. There is no evidence that DACA-eligible individuals are more likely to commit crimes than any other person within the United States.
This looks like the fair and morally superior solution to deportation. The only question that remains is: Why are republicans making the future of these children the lynch pin of the budget? What do they lose by allowing these children to stay and become citizens? What do any of us lose? The answer, sadly, is nothing. We lose nothing except the image we portray to the world of our humanity by what we are willing to do to the least of our brothers and sisters. They, on the other hand, stand to lose a lot.
Our country was founded and established by mothers and fathers seeking escape from their home countries, who risked it all to start a new life in a new land. We would be wise to exercise humility and care when affecting the fate of other human beings, especially when it costs us nothing to do so. This land is big enough for all of us; it is great because of all who came here, worked here, lived here, and died here. Immigrants built this country. Who are we to claim they no longer have a place here? What right under our republic do we feel morally entitled enough to do that?
As a federal civil servant I am not glad that the government has shut down, I have something to lose in this, but I am glad that there are individuals in Congress who will fight for the rights of others, who will put it all on the line for children who deserve a fighting chance, from a country that has lured generations of people to its shores with the promise of freedom and opportunity to dream big.
Pope, Nolan G. (2016). “The effects of DACAmentation: The impact of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on illegal immigrants”. Journal of Public Economics. 143: 98–114. doi:10.1016/j.jpubeco.2016.08.014.
Patler, Caitlin; Cabrera, Jorge (June 2015). From Undocumented to DACAmented: Impacts of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program Three Years Following its Announcement (PDF) (Report). Institute for Research and Labor Employment, University of California, Los Angeles.
Gonzales, Roberto; Terriquez, Veronica; Ruszczyk, Stephen (October 1, 2014). “Becoming DACAmented: Assessing the Short-Term Benefits of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)”. American Behavioral Scientist.
“Trump’s Harsh Message to Immigrants Could Drag on Economy”. Associated Press. 2017-09-06. ISSN 0362-4331.
Bushatz, Amy. (January 2018). How a Government Shutdown would impact military pay, benefits, Military.com.
Most recreationists who are even slightly aware of land management issues on public lands are familiar with the Bundys and their stand against the government. It is safe to say that most think the Bundys are mistaken in their approach to public lands. It is equally safe to say that none would put themselves in the same category as the Bundys. Recently; however, the House Committee on Natural Resources voted to amend the Wilderness Act to allow bicycles in wilderness areas at the behest of some in the mountain biking community.
Ted Stoll, founder and executive director of the California-based Sustainable Trails Coalition, who is the author of this bill, has been seeking out help from the very representatives actively trying to take public lands – and why wouldn’t he go to the representatives who value wilderness areas the least? While Stoll and his supporters followed the legislative process and did it the legal way, in contrast to how the Bundys have been doing it, their efforts to mine the ground of protected wilderness landscapes, whether they intended it or not, are providing the first in-roads for opportunists seeking similar access with designs of their own.
In 1960 Wallace Stegner wrote what has come to be known as The Wilderness Letter. It was written to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission regarding recreation in wilderness. In it he states that recreation has no more to do with wilderness than it does with churches or with the “American Dream” and argued against recreation in wilderness areas because the idea of wild places existing was more valuable than peoples’ access to recreational experiences in them.
He went on to explain how the wild landscape of our country built and forged our national character making us who we are, giving us quiet and solitude from the industrial and technological world we created, and that wilderness, however impractical to some, provides blessings of a spiritual kind to those who enter, and can calm those who simply contemplate it.
Our national identity and character is without question linked to the land. The expansion westward shaped the people of this Nation as surely as the Revolution did; it’s in our blood to roam and get caught up in the vast landscape of our country. People not born here but who choose the United States as home can sense it and feel and immerse themselves in it as well.
Stegner said, “The American experience has been the confrontation by old peoples and cultures of a world as new as if it had just risen from the sea. That gave us our hope and our excitement, and the hope and excitement can be passed on to newer Americans, Americans who never saw any phase of the frontier. But only so long as we keep the remainder of our wild as a reserve and a promise–a sort of wilderness bank.”
We should not forget our history or the untamed land from which it grew; and in remembering, we should fight to preserve and protect it.
Our protection should come from a place of gratitude. We enjoy rights, access, and a standard of living built on the experiences and lessons learned from those who came before us. Few of us have lived in a place or time where we could not drink the water, breathe the air, or eat the food. That is a blessing many in the world do not have.
Few of us have witnessed rivers catch on fire due to pollution, or watched thousands die as industrial smog settled over a city, or have had to live with the slow death caused by contamination or living down wind or down river of noxious poisons or toxins. Few of us have seen wildlife die slow and agonizing deaths from lead poisoning or pesticides. This is because people before us learned that “progress” has costs and passed legislation and implemented regulations in order to protect life and a basic standard of living. But that doesn’t mean it will stay this way.
We could be the ones who let it slip away. It is on us now to decide if we will maintain our collective civic conscience that ensures benefits for the good of all of us. Either our hard work or our complicity will shape the lives of those who come after us. As Gifford Pinchot said 100 years ago about our generation, “Our duty is to the future. To ensure that people in 2010 have a country of clean water, healthy forests, and open land will require battle with certain groups, namely the alliance between business and politics.” What will the generation 100 years from now have to say of what we passed on to them?
Today we stand witness to decisions being made by an administration that is undoing much of the hard work done by American pioneers – much of it the manifestation of the alliance between business and politics. We are witnessing a heretofore unseen zeal to slash and burn through historic and unprecedented ethical human progress, progress that revealed our values and character to the world, and it is being done without a care. It is such an overwhelming attack that it will take generations to fix and recover from if we do nothing to stop it – and that work will have to be done by our children and their children.
The policies being dismantled, and the decisions being made today, foretells a future where we might very well live to see access to our public lands disappear. Situations like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan might become the norm. We could see more rivers filled with mine tailings as the EPA is gutted and made inept. We may witness the death of our national forests as climate change moves into fifth gear while we do nothing. Our children’s children may never get the chance to see wild salmon, or hear the howl of a wolf, or experience a starry night because of what we do or do not do right now. We may witness and experience poverty – not just in terms of wealth – the likes of which most of us have never seen, least of which could be the loss of experiencing the last remnants of our wild lands as they were 100 years ago.
According to the Department of Interior, more than 500 million people visit National Parks and Monuments, wildlife refuges, and recreational sites annually. Additionally, the Forest Service statistics shows 173 million visits annually to national forests and 300 million visits to scenic byways and other travel routes near national forest lands. This says nothing of the development around the edges of public lands for people who want to live nearby.
It is safe to say that recreationists are the biggest users of public lands. Because of that, we need to be hyper aware of our impacts on the ephemeral and fragile ideals public lands are founded on and endeavor to protect them. Otherwise, we will be no better than others using public lands for their own selfish ends.
We should also recognize the economic value our public lands provide to our governments, both national and local, and by proxy, the benefits those dollars bring to us. The Outdoor Recreation Association believes it will be the economy of the future. Right now tourism and recreation make up the fourth largest economic sector in the country with $887 billion in consumer spending annually, bringing in $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue, and $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue. Where do those billions of dollars go? Defense spending? Funding NASA? Roads? Medicaid?
Furthermore, what these numbers do not show is the amount of revenue brought in by international tourists and recreationists. Those dollars are paid by non-citizens who through their spending directly benefit us in terms of tax revenues that we ourselves do not have to pay.
Some in the outdoor industry recognize this, but none are on the forefront of this battle more than Patagonia. If there is a growing movement, they are the tip of the spear. We are witnessing a David and Goliath show-down between Yvon Chouinard’s Patagonia and the Federal Government that has escalated into anti-Patagonia tweets from government officials and even an invitation to Yvon Chouinard to come to Washington by Rob Bishop (R-Utah).
Patagonia was the first to stand up to Utah politicians pursuing their anti-public lands agenda in a real way by pulling out of the Outdoor Retailer (OR) show when it was clear Utah representatives would not stop their crusade, causing many other companies to follow suit – eventually leading the OR show to another state.
Patagonia really committed itself when it publicly supported, funded, and advocated for the protection of Bears Ears National Monument. They did so for the climbing certainly, but they didn’t do it just for that – as is clear from the public statements the company has made. Patagonia is fighting for the continued experiences that can only be found in wild places– because as Stegner said, “If the abstract dream of human liberty and human dignity became, in America, something more than an abstract dream, mark it down at least partially to the fact that we were in subdued ways subdued by what we conquered.”
In other words, they are fighting for an American ideal – a uniquely American feeling, and the renewal that comes from immersing yourself in the land.
Chouinard is a living example of the combination between the American Dream and the American Spirit. He built a successful company out of the recreational sports he loves. He played in our wild places and helped pioneer gear for others to play in those wild places also – and now he is fighting for those places. Fishing, surfing, and climbing shaped the 70 year old man we see today. He is what Wallace Stegner described as, “…an American, insofar as he is new and different at all, is a civilized man who has renewed himself in the wild.”
Patagonia is an interesting paradox to behold because the outdoor retail industry has largely been an affable yet harmless group more interested in color combinations of zippers on puffy jackets than public policy, seemingly taking for granted the fight it took to get access to public lands that fuels much of their business; an industry “incapable of driving large-scale global change.” (The Big Business of Resist) Despite the potential, they hardly garnered a look from political players.
When I attended the OR show in 2015 I went to listen to former Secretary of Interior, Bruce Babbitt. I shook my head as I looked around the room at the roughly 300 people in attendance making up a miniscule fraction of the 10,000 that showed up for the OR show. It represented an embarrassingly shallow lack of substance in an industry built on the substance of such individuals as Bruce Babbitt.
Here was a man who came from a ranching family in Northern Arizona who became a lawyer, a governor, and the Secretary of Interior who tackled some of the most complex and controversial issues in public land management resulting in long overdue reforms to mining, grazing, and endangered species law. A man who used his skills as an effective public advocate and teacher to counter the inevitable criticism from political opponents, and was instrumental in defeating the environmental rollback propositions of the Republican’s 1994 manifesto, Contract with America.
Here was a man who was the first Secretary of Interior to restore fire to its natural role in the wild and to tear down dams, restoring river flow into the Atlantic and the Pacific; a man who was personally involved in demonstrating catch and release programs for endangered trout and salmon to highlight how restoring native fish habitats restores economies; the same man who provided recommendations to President Clinton that led to the creation of 21 new monuments protected under the Antiquities Act that are now being undone by President Trump.
The OR industry turned a deaf ear to this man – until now. Babbitt’s words are reaching once deaf ears like the distant rumble of a long gone train. As if rising from a dead and distant past I can hear him say, “Wake up. Your industry – the $646 billion per year outdoor recreation industry – is a sleeping giant. If you mobilize the full economic and political power of your industry, you can change the debate. The persistent, high-stakes debate about public lands that is.” (Jimmy Tobias, 2015, Outside Magazine)
Patagonia did “wake up” and may finally be garnering Washington’s attention, but they are largely a lone wolf in the outdoor retail industry. Many in the industry are still plugging their ears. Many disagree with Patagonia’s stand, disagreed with pulling out of the OR show, and are playing it safe on the sidelines. Why mess up a good thing?
Many believe that Patagonia will take hard blows and may be destroyed in this fight. Many are shaking their heads at what is surely going to be a long legal battle, wondering if Patagonia has the stamina to go the distance and if the company will end up laying off employees to continue their fight.
Patagonia most certainly has something to lose and it’s more than just retail sales; they have put it all on the line in defense of public lands and therefore, could lose it all. But, as former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” They are clearly at the table now and contrary to high ranking political figures poisoning the well by suggesting that Patagonia is catering to coastal elites, the costs they could incur speaks to the integrity of their fight – a fight we all stand to win or lose.
Wallace Stegner quoted Sherwood Anderson writing to Waldo Frank in his Wilderness letter, “Is it not likely that when the country was new and men were often alone in the fields and the forest they got a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost…. Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the American line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies…. I am old enough to remember tales that strengthen my belief in a deep semi-religious influence that was formerly at work among our people. The flavor of it hangs over the best work of Mark Twain…. I can remember old fellows in my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains. It had taken the shrillness out of them. They had learned the trick of quiet…”
And then said, “We could learn it too, even yet; even our children and grandchildren could learn it. But only if we save, for just such absolutely non-recreational, impractical, and mystical uses as this, all the wild that still remains to us.”
Bruce Babbitt said, “This is the moment to apply the strength of your industry to the defense of America’s public lands.”
One could argue that Patagonia is doing just that. It’s not just about climbing or just about sales, it’s about the idea behind real places that provide intangible spiritual value to people who need and yearn for it. The land is a gift available to us that we neither earned nor deserve, but have. This fight is not just worthy, but according to Bruce Babbitt, doable – but we have to engage in it.
Let’s hope the outdoor retail industry can produce impactful results as well as create compelling stories to sell merchandise. Let’s hope Patagonia is not just the tip of the spear, but the tip of the spear with the entire Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) behind it – however active behind the scenes or slow to act they may be. “REI alone, with a membership of 16 million – more than three times that of the NRA – is theoretically capable of exerting enormous pressure on lawmakers.” What could the Patagoniac tribe, REI members, and the OIA bring to the table as a united front?
We need to decide where we stand else we become the ranchers of tomorrow. What makes mountain bikers who pushed for the wheels in wilderness legislation similar to ranchers like Cliven Bundy is that they are fighting for their own self-interest. They believe that their wants supersede everything else. It is a short-sighted view. We recreationists would be wise to consider our impacts on the land – we far outnumber ranchers – and should acknowledge and respect limits when pursuing activities that we love.
We should also support those fighting a battle that we stand to benefit from. Here’s to Patagonia and the hope that the OIA stands with them – and that they team up with tested and hardened veterans of the public lands battle, the modern day Teddy Roosevelts – the Babbitts and Udalls of the country – and wins, because if Patagonia and others like them persevere, we will all preserve and maintain a little longer our national character that was shaped and forged by a wild and untamed landscape.
We will reveal to the world that our character is built on more than money, that we respect and value the wisdom and gifts our ancestors gave us, and that we fight for our ideals because it’s who we are and who we will continue to be. And maybe, more importantly, we will leave behind for those coming after us the legacy of caring enough about each other to preserve our wild lands as sanctuaries for anyone seeking a momentary reprieve from a hurting and angry man-made world.
I support our monuments, parks, refuges, forests, ranges, and all public lands. I also support the foundation of law upon which their existence is founded. I support the proud American tradition of leaving some things alone and preserving their existence for present and future generations to enjoy. The value of these lands is incaluable. Their value is beyond what can be exchanged on the stock exchange. If we cannot live with 70% of our lands developed, extracted, and used then we won’t be able to with 100%. Wisdom is learning to live within limits and ingenuity is finding solutions to prosper within them.
Are we really so petulant that we must dispose of it all?
I am also in favor of increasing the budgets for land management agencies to a level that is adequate to manage the land of which Congress has been delinquent in doing. It is a disservice to civil servants and to the public to provide Congress with inflated paychecks and retirement benefits and then cut jobs and budgets for average citizens fulfilling an American mandate. Do the right thing.
“The land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”
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