(originally published in Agenda New West)
|Red Rock gateway or “Gravel Pit Point?”|
At the Bicknell Bottoms in Wayne County, southbound Utah Highway 24 turns west and passes through the Red Gate of the red rock Velvet Cliffs on the north and a toe of Boulder Mountain on the south. Here it enters the gorgeous Fremont River valley and the gateway communities to Capitol Reef National Park. I was at a gathering of friends and neighbors to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of the good man who built my home in the valley in Torrey. John came down from the city in the late 90’s to build my home, fell in love with the surroundings, and never left.
It was there, talking about John and why he loved this place, and why we did too, that I learned that Wayne County is proposing to rezone nearby undisturbed land to allow the building of a gravel pit. Extractive industry like this is a good example of Old West thinking that is having a hard time going away. In the Old West the land was seen for the taking. Plunder and prosper. Mining, logging, grazing, drilling, road building, damming and stream draining, all were viewed as improvement and progress. In the New West we have learned, or are beginning to learn, that the land is often more valuable when left in its natural state. By value in this case I am speaking of economics. But there are other ethical and cultural values that are part of the New West way of seeing and being.
I changed my voting district years ago to go with my property in rural Wayne County primarily in order to vote against Mike Noel, a powerful political paragon of the Old West in Utah. If I told Mike I was against building a gravel pit in this gorgeous gateway valley he would ask me how I got here. Did I drive on a road? Where did I think the road came from? Mike talks in disingenuous ways like that but he is right, I drive here on a road. But does that mean we need another gravel pit, and a gravel pit in a paradise like this? When I point out to Noel that today in Utah all of agriculture, natural resources and mining, including oil and gas, add up to less than four percent of Utah’s economy he simply denies the facts. He says something like, “Everybody has to eat.” He is right, we all eat, but he is wrong on the state of the State. Extraction is a very small part of the modern economy. The woman on the bike in the tourist photo above is looking almost directly at where the gravel pit would be. She is very likely from somewhere in the other 96% of the economy that live and work and play in Utah because it is beautiful and she is not here to gaze at the destruction of extraction.
When I object to opening a nearby gravel pit am I just pushing the problem elsewhere by insisting “not in my backyard?” I don’t think so. In economics there is a useful concept called comparative advantage. In this case it would say there are some places that are better for gravel pits and some places that are better as gateway communities to National Parks and that when each place is put to its highest use, and not to every possible use, the world is a better place. But the concept still assumes a gravel pit needs to be dug somewhere. But does it? Aren’t there enough gravel pits? Are there better substitutes from existing resources, like the scrapings that come from existing road resurfacing? Building a gravel pit in the Fremont River Valley is a good Old West example of a private party, in this case a construction company and the politicians like Noel it supports, benefiting at the public’s expense. It is a special interest wins, we lose proposition. A new gravel pit does not need to be here and in fact it does not need to be anywhere.