John B. Wright’s Rocky Mountain Divide: Selling and Saving the West contains a unique examination of Mormon attitudes toward land conservation. In spite of inaccurate statements about Mormon history, doctrine, and practice, the book is a valuable resource on land conservation in the West and a careful examination of the present status of conservation efforts in Utah and Colorado.
Wright’s book is intended to be a call to arms for voluntary land conservation through land trusts—“private, nonprofit citizen groups which engage in land protection activities” (14). The mission of the land trust is to conserve private lands of significant natural, scenic, and historic value. Most land trusts receive tax-exempt status from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Internal Revenue Service. At the time Wright’s book was written, Utah had only one land trust while Colorado had twenty-seven (14).
Wright seizes upon the dramatic contrast in land trusting in Colorado and Utah and recounts, as a historical geographer, the evolution of land use and land conservation in the two states. As one would expect, Wright finds Utah’s Mormon heritage its most significant distinction. Recounting the initial settlement efforts of Utah, Wright notes the reverential attitude of the early pioneers toward their new territory: “Over and over in their diaries, pioneers noted streams, flood-plains, excellent soils, tall grass, and a dry climate tempered by cooling canyon winds” (162). He also finds that early Mormon statements on land use were very high-minded.
But the book also contrasts the Saints’ early idealism with the reality of their monopolization, deforestation, and overgrazing and recounts the land and water exploitation that has now filled the Salt Lake Valley with development. Wright contends that Utahns conserve only incidentally, not as a matter of focus. He blames the Mormon belief in millennialism for Utahns’ attitude toward their lands. If “earth will appear as the Garden of Eden” and “be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory” (A of F 10), there is little reason to pay attention to the state of the land now.
Wright is also disturbed that little has been done by the Church in land conservation leadership. He suggests that the LDS Church sponsor a Mormon Trail land trust and a Sanpete County cultural park to simultaneously exemplify Mormon values and land conservation (242; see also 246, 255).
Wright’s book represents an important opportunity for self-examination as Utah finds itself with one of the highest growth rates of any state in the nation. The unfortunate factual errors and use of controversial sources will impair Wright’s ability to reach the general Mormon audience he needs to persuade. Nevertheless, the book’s overview of land conservation efforts in Utah and Colorado makes it a valuable resource.