I was so smitten by the red rock canyons and high country of the central Colorado Plateau that in the late 1990’s I built a home there near Torrey, Utah. With the house underway and drawn to the landscape around it, I went for day hike on nearby Boulder Mountain. I hoped to spend a little time writing near Meeks Lake which I anticipated would be a pristine natural alpine lake perched on 11,000 foot high Boulder top. On the way up the mountain I noticed there were a lot of cows and that the grass was hammered everywhere. I hiked around barbed wire fences and cattle guards, all on U.S. National Forest lands. I was surprised that there were always cows on both sides of the cattle guards and that livestock gates were always open. When I arrived at the lake I found it inundated by cows. It looked and smelled like a stockyard. Any pristine alpine lake that might have been was trampled into oblivion. Swatting away flies, instead of writing prose I scribbled down an outraged letter to the Forest Service. “I’m a sixth generation Utahan, this is my land as much as some rancher’s,” I wrote. “How can you treat our forests in such a way?”
The response from the Forest Service was dismissive. They claimed to not know cows were at the lake, sorry. I got more involved to see what I could do to help protect these astonishing alpine forests surrounded by seas of red rock walls and canyons. By the fall of 2010, Kirsten Allen, publisher at Torrey House, and I had learned that there were numerous non-government organizations hard at work to protect our sacred natural places but we saw they were fighting an uphill battle of public ignorance and complacency. We found that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management often see their jobs as a concierge service to a few privileged local ranchers not as protectors of the land. The public would never put up with the resulting subsidized land abuse if it knew. In October of 2010 we spent a week with the Grand Canyon Trust’s Mary O’Brien, the Jane Goodall of the southern Utah forests. We were up high again in National Forest on the Fish Lake Plateau on hands and knees with other volunteers assessing the sorry, overgrazed state of cottonwoods, aspen and willow there. We went back home, wet, worried and disgusted by what we had witnessed, and founded book publisher Torrey House Press. We knew we were rushing in where angels feared to tread.
Nervous angels notwithstanding, what better way, we continue to think, to protect America’s Best Idea than by telling stories? Literature, excellent, passionate, inspired literature is how culture is changed and made. Literature is the wedge that cracks us open and lets the light pour in on our collective conscience revealing what we have and what we stand to lose.
The American West is an internationally renowned jewel chest of sacred natural places on vast public lands. Yellowstone National Park. Yosemite. Zion, Bryce Canyon, Archer and two other national parks in Utah alone. The Northwest and the Columbia River system. California with the lowest and highest places in the 48 states. The Rocky Mountains. Yet there remain jewel thieves about. There is currently a plank in the Republican Party platform calling for the indiscriminate and immediate disposal of national public lands. The ringleaders of this conspiracy are right here in Utah. Utah’s congressman Rob Bishop is the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman and has yet another anti-public lands bill before Congress this month proposing a modern day Indian land grab that would transfer 100,000 acres from the Ute Nation’s reservation to the state of Utah and imposes management changes on another 200,000 acres of the reservation, amongst other forms of piracy. Bishop’s campaign contributions are 95% from out of state, primarily from the extraction industry. Folks like the Koch brothers promoting temporary boom with their contribution dollars and leaving behind permanent bust. Private gain at public expense. Such darkness needs light.
Protecting public land and natural places has always been and always will be a battle. A battle that requires the power of the pen. One of my favorite powerful pen stories is that of a publisher in Boston, Robert Underwood Johnson, who in the mid 1880’s heard about a man named John Muir and a place called Yosemite in California. Johnson traveled by train across the entire continent to meet this man and see this place. Duly inspired—Can you imagine seeing Yosemite in 1889 with John Muir as your guide?—Johnson published Muir’s writings and appeared often before Congress in Washington D.C. to advocate for this previously unknown and unimaginable place. In 1890 Yosemite became a national park. It is a story of publisher and author uniting to use the press for progress. Congress would have never moved if they believed the public wasn’t aware of and in favor of protecting Yosemite.
Kirsten Johanna Allen, our executive director and publisher at Torrey House Press, has already been to Washington D.C. twice this year on similar errands advocating for sacred, wild and scenic lands preservation. She claims it is a spiritual journey for her.
Timothy Egan, contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times recently wrote a piece about promoting conservation through literature titled, “Can Poets Save the Parks?” In it he mentioned “Red Rock Testimony,” one of the Torrey House Press titles Kirsten took to Washington D.C. The National Park Service is celebrating its centennial and Egan lists three big concerns 100 years in: climate change, our youth’s worsening nature deficit disorder, and the threat to public lands from the likes of the Bundy clan’s sagebrush rebels and the western politicians, like ours from Utah, who support them.
Mr. Egan suggests that poets have saved the land before and that they must do it again.
There is nothing like a book to inspire and change minds. In 1960, Wallace Stegner penned his famous Wilderness Letter on the importance of federal protection of wild places. Five years earlier, Stegner had edited This is Dinosaur, a collection of essays that helped protect Dinosaur National Monument from a proposed dam. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in1962, inspired the establishment of the modern environmental movement. In1964, after Carson appeared before Congress while courageously hiding her terminal cancer, the Wilderness Act was signed into law. These writers stood on the shoulders of authors and nature writers like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Aldo Leopold, each of whom forever stimulated our national psyche with an understanding of the sacred treasure of our wild and natural public lands. It is a uniquely American story and an ultimately democratic one. And the key word here is story.
Terry Tempest Williams is Utah’s and one of the West’s best known conservation writers. She earned her voice by becoming a published author of sensitive, insightful, personal and exquisitely honest works of literary nonfiction. We need more Terrys in the West and she knows it. She helped establish the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities program. Two of Torrey House Press’s staff members now hail from there. Along with her husband Brooke, she brought us The Story of My Heart, a work we are humbled and honored to have published. But more can and needs to be done in the Intermountain West to support the literary arts and Terry Tempest Williams cannot do it all. THP is the only literary nonprofit press in the entire region. In stark contrast, Minneapolis alone has three of them. And they are three of the best independent small presses in the country. Minnesota has the right to be extremely proud. In fact, Minnesota is responsible for these presses’ existence. Between the three presses Minnesota philanthropic community comes up with nearly $5 million annually in charitable contributions to support Midwestern writers and their works.
Torrey House Press converted to a nonprofit Utah corporation a year ago. While we are off to a reasonable start in learning the art of fund raising, we have yet to arrive. Our goal is to raise $100,000 a year in order to publish 8 to 10 titles. Until now Kirsten and I have self-funded THP but we have reached the end of our ability to personally keep the press afloat. With an ideal $250,000 of support we could acquire office space, make the staff full time, improve their pay so they stick around, add a literary fiction editor so Kirsten can focus on public lands and related nonfiction and add an in-house fund raiser. The press could move up to publishing 15 well promoted titles per year from the six or seven we do now. Right now we are painfully turning down excellent work that is right up our alley because we do not have adequate funds to produce and promote the authors in a robust way. We strive to grow to where we are publishing 20 titles per year of the highest quality fiction and nonfiction. At that point we will be nearing the size of the smallest of the three presses I mentioned in Minneapolis. There are no other literary nonprofit presses in the West focused on conservation through literature that produce both fiction and nonfiction, perhaps not in the entire country. Such a press is wanted. Andy Nettell owner of Back of Beyond Books in Moab, Utah gave us a big, affirming smile when we told him we seek to become the best of both Island Press and Milkweed Editions. (Andy also slipped a check in my pocket as he clapped me on the back and hugged Kirsten.)
Wallace Stegner wrote of a society to match the scenery, something we want to help evolve. There are obstacles. Utah Congressman Rob Bishop gets 95% of his funding from out of state, primarily from oil and gas and other special interests. Bishop thus works for the extraction industries serving to legislate the West backward into the 19th century when logging, mining, damming rivers, drilling and grazing were king. It is not something he can be proud of. Today extraction makes up less than four percent of our western economy. The other 96% of us require forward progress where nature preserved is the highest and best use of the land. The beautiful outdoors sustains all who live and visit here.
Writers of the West have unique voices. We readers have much to learn, for instance, from Native American writers. Right now in North Dakota history is being made, as Rebecca Solnit describes for The Guardian. “What’s happening at Standing Rock is extraordinary and possibly transformative for native rights, Sioux history, and the intersection of the climate movement with indigenous communities.” This is a story that needs a lively and energetic independent press like THP to give it a lasting national platform.
To counter the likes of Bishop we need out-of-state funding as well as in-state support. Here at ground zero of the fight for public lands, we will seek such aid and know where we will immediately put it to good use when we receive it.
Torrey House Press exists to promote conservation through literature, to give voice to the sons and daughters of the land and of the West, informing, changing and inspiring hearts and minds in a way that promotes a society equal to our spectacular place.
Who knows, perhaps a lively and entertaining story of the folly of subsidizing public land grazing will make it onto our list. We the public will thus inspire our legislators to finally legalize public land grazing permit buyouts, paying ranchers handsomely to take their cows and barbed wire off of poor, hammered Boulder Mountain. Our forests will immediately start to recover and the next Terry Tempest Williams will meet her personal Muse in a field of untrammeled wildflowers by the side of a pristine alpine lake.