Jonathan P. Thompson is a son of the Four Corners. He is a journalist and writer, recently penning the book River of Lost Souls (non-fiction Torrey House 2018) and Behind the Slickrock Curtain (fiction Lost Souls Press Sept. 2020). I am co-founder of Torrey House Press and while I previously followed him as an extra savvy writer of the West, I got to know him personally when he published with us. In August of this year he and Torrey House are bringing out his next book, SAGEBRUSH EMPIRE: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. I have had a look at a first draft and am thrilled that more of his writing and perspective will soon hit the stores.
In the meanwhile he is writing a newsletter via Substack called The Land Desk. Recently he wrote about air quality in the region and used a term that has caught my eye before, “normalized degradation.” I first ran into the term with Mary O’Brien, the recently retired Southern Utah Forest Scientist for the Grand Canyon Trust. We were looking at the constant devastation caused by private livestock operations on our public lands. Mary pointed out that only Native Americans would know what the land looked like before the cows got here. The first European settlers brought the cows in hoards with them, long before scientists could take a look or measurement of what it was and could be. But there was early talk of the settlers finding cool water in the streams and grass on the mountains up to the rider’s stirrups. Now the streams are mashed wide and flat and shallow and the grass is annually cow and sheep-mowed down to the nub. Not only grass and water, but Mary was showing us how cottonwood trees, willow and aspen get munched down before new trees and shoots can grow often causing their stands to be a virtual village of old folks with no kids to replace them. Such is happening to the famous aspen stand known as the Pando near me in Torrey, one of the world’s oldest and largest living organisms.
We are so used to looking at these places overrun as they are that we think their degraded state is normal. It could be so much better.
Jonathan is a terrific researcher and often does what he calls “data dumps.” On January 27 he came out with a piece on regional air clarity with plenty of graphs and charts, but most compelling perhaps were pictures he had taken personally.
He had recently heard a story told by an old timer of being able to see as much as 200 miles. But in the 40 or so years since Jonathan has been looking around he had never seen such a thing nor could even imagine it. As I pilot I have thought the same thing. I would read about Wallace Stegner in the 40’s and 50’s on Boulder Mountain near what is now Capitol Reef National Park, the area where I live, and easily being able see over 100 miles in air like crystal. I could rarely see even half that far, the air always being full of haze and growing steadily more and more opaque.
But Jonathan had a wake up call during the pandemic. The air was clearing and he was startled to be able to see further than he ever had. The effect of the pandemic combined with the closing of regional coal burning power plants was making a commanding difference. The land is fantastic to see in long distance and the clear air compelling. It could easily be so much better than the normalized degradation we are growing too complacent about.
Check out Jonathan’s post here for a little fun with clearing air data and graphs while you imagine the possibilities.