Desert Solitaire, Ed Abbey’s monumental celebration of public land in red rock country, was published 50 years ago. While far from the most extraordinary event of 1968, a most extraordinary year, the book remains highly relevant and deeply personal to me and to many who love public lands.
Right about the same time, 50 years ago, the ASARCO mining company began unfolding maps and poking around in the White Cloud Mountains of Idaho. They were soon proposing to build what would have been the world’s largest open-pit molybdenum mine at the foot of Castle Peak. As a cast of Idaho characters became aware of this mine, a massive uproar ensued. By 1970, the question of whether to mine a treasured landscape or not was the centerpiece of the Idaho governor’s race. Cecil Andrus opposed the mine and was elected.
When I left the White House in August, 2015, after President Obama signed the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill, the first call I made was to late governor and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus to tell him we’d finally gotten the job done. I stood in the White House with Rep. Mike Simpson, the dogged wilderness bill sponsor. At the time, I suspect he thought he’d finally finished his White Clouds chapter, but he is writing a new piece right now-on Feb. 14, 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives Resources Committee "marked up" a bill to rename the White Clouds Wilderness area for Cecil Andrus. This is an important step towards passage.
The renaming recognizes Andrus’ service to Idaho and the nation as our only four-term governor and as a Secretary of Interior of extraordinary impact. And as Simpson knows as well as anyone, Andrus helped stop the mine in the White Clouds, making later achievements possible.
In a recent New York Times book review, noted historian Douglas Brinkley wrote an essay about the publication of naturalist and novelist Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. It’s a powerful piece about a powerful book. As he writes, "Abbey’s voice, like that of Thomas Paine in "Common Sense," never fades away. When confronted by industrial tyranny he would fume like a geyser basin."
Brinkley also suggested-quite strongly-that our current president and his interior secretary would be well served by reading Desert Solitaire, particularly as they create their own legacy which, for now, is only about reducing protections for the West’s treasured landscapes.
As I’ve said to many people, I got into this work to protect special places. But I’ve stayed in this work because of the special people I have met through this work. I once met Ed Abbey and we corresponded about him speaking in Idaho. I also met Douglas Brinkley and talked about Idaho’s conservation history. And I worked for many years with Cecil Andrus and Mike Simpson. I have the deepest respect and admiration for all four-four very different men, but all people who love the West with spirit and passion. And then they did things to honor it.
I have not met the current president or interior secretary. I have a sense I will not, but like Brinkley suggests, I agree that reading Desert Solitaire could do them no harm. Reading about Cecil Andrus would be a good turn, too, and perhaps engaging in a conversation with Simpson, getting a sense of what commonsense conservation really means in America. On this 50th anniversary of Desert Solitaire I’ll pull out my signed copy and read it again. As Abbey said, "…wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders."