Utah History Encyclopedia


By Thomas G. Alexander and Rick J. Fish
Natural forces such as wind, water, fire, and earthquakes, together with human activities such as hunting, grazing, and logging have changed Utah's physical environment. Such changes affected the lives of Utah's first inhabitants, the Anasazi and the Fremont, as well as those of their successors, the Shoshonean and Athabascan speakers. For example, by mid-nineteenth century, hunting had eradicated the buffalo from Utah and had reduced elk populations. The elk along with mountain goats and sheep had disappeared before 1900, and these animals were reintroduced to the state only in the twentieth century.

The years from the entry of the first Euro-Americans into Utah in 1776 until about 1890 can easily be seen as a period of exploitation. Although the mountain men seem to have been avowed exploitationists, the Mormon pioneers tried to operate under a stewardship ethic. Brigham Young proposed a philosophy under which the community would regulate natural resources in the public good. In spite of this ideal, however, community regulation failed to curb destructive--as opposed to benign--alteration of Utah's landscape. Excessively intensive logging for building construction and mining caused the destruction of timber resources in the mountains and foothills above Utah settlements. Unregulated grazing resulted in the denudation of mountain slopes and led to serious rock-mud floods during the early decades of the twentieth century.

With the exception of the uncontrolled flooding, however, water constituted the one resource that nineteenth-century Utahns learned to conserve for community benefit. Treated as a public resource after pioneer parties dammed City Creek to flood land in Salt Lake City on 23 July 1847, water became the property of the community. The territory at first regulated water appropriation under an 1852 law that gave each county court (commission) control of such privileges in the absence of contrary legislative grants. Until a law of 1865 provided for the creation of irrigation companies with taxing power, local officials generally handled water regulation under the general direction of the county court. In 1880, the legislature first allowed private--as opposed to community--appropriation of water. Under these conditions, individuals rather than districts owned water, and the resource became a market commodity that owners could buy or sell.

The first years of water conservation in Utah were characterized by individuals or communities diverting rivers for irrigation or culinary uses. Many of the earliest diversion structures were so primitive that citizens had to rebuild them after heavy rains. In addition, irrigation waters often flooded farmlands and washed away topsoil. Later in the nineteenth century, communities and businesses began constructing sizable dams and other diversion facilities.

After 1890 the federal government began to take a hand in irrigation projects. After a modest beginning with the recommendations of John Wesley Powell in 1878, the irrigation survey early in the 1890s, and the Carey Act projects after 1894, the federal government played an even more central role after the passage of the Reclamation Act (or Newlands Act) in 1902. Thereafter, the federal government furnished capital and engineering expertise to construct such systems over much of the state. Users repaid costs at a highly favorable interest rate over a long period of time, or part of the costs were paid with power revenues. Federal reclamation projects in Utah were essentially of two types. One consisted in damming and diverting streams flowing wholly or principally within the state, such as in the Ogden and Weber River projects. The other diverted water interstate flowing through Utah and other states.

Perhaps the most ambitious of the latter was the attempt to move water into the Great Basin from streams flowing into the Colorado River. Accomplishing this diversion required the negotiation of an interstate compact between Utah and other states through which the Colorado flowed. Utah's first federal reclamation project--the Strawberry Valley Project--begun in 1905, drew water from the Colorado's drainage into Utah County through a tunnel in the Wasatch Mountains. Subsequent projects have brought about the construction of dams at Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon to regulate the flow of the Colorado and generate electric power. Others, including the massive Central Utah Project, have diverted water into rivers such as the Provo and Spanish Fork.

In recent years, such projects have been extremely controversial for a number of reasons. These include the failure to maintain stream flows to protect aquatic life, disputes over water ownership, the enormous subsidy to irrigators, and the ratio of benefit to cost of the projects themselves. During the late nineteenth century, as Utahns developed and utilized water, they allowed their land to deteriorate. By 1891 the federal government, which owned most of the land in the territory, recognized the seriousness of the land deterioration and Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of forest reserves to preserve watersheds and valuable timber supplies from destruction. Utah's first forest reserve, the Uinta, was created in 1897.

Administered at first by the Forestry Division of the General Land Office, these reserves came under the jurisdiction of Gifford Pinchot's Forest Service at the time of its creation in 1905. The bulk of federal lands, however, remained outside national forests and under the nominal supervision of the General Land Office, which sought to sell land to settlers. Since most of the land was unusable for anything except grazing, and since ranchers could not legally own large enough portions to create economically viable ranching units, cattlemen and sheepmen generally used the public domain without permission but under established custom or through private force.

For many decades, ranchers sought legal sanction for their extra-legal operations. Congress met this demand with the designation of grazing districts under the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and extended it with the consolidation of the grazing districts and the General Land Office under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 1946. The grazing districts and the BLM recognized previous use of the public land as the basis for its grazing permits. As an added feature, a percentage of both BLM and national forest grazing receipts were turned over to the state or its taxing units.

The federal government is Utah's largest landowner. Land under federal management is used for such things watershed control, mineral and timber production, grazing, wildlife management, recreation, parks, monuments, and wilderness. The federal government owns approximately two-thirds (67.1 percent) of Utah's total area; the state owns 7.2 percent; private parties 21.5 percent; and Indian tribes 4.4 percent. Land under federal management is divided principally among the Bureau of Land Management with 44.1 percent of the total land, national forests with 15 percent, Department of Defense with 4.6 percent, and the national parks and related areas with 3.4 percent.

The attitudes of various interest groups regarding the proper use of the public lands have varied. People whose livelihood has depended upon use of the commodities from the public lands have often been pitted against those who tend to favor aesthetic or other non-economic uses. In the past, some users--particularly certain stockmen--have favored sale of the public lands to private parties. Their opponents have generally favored preservation of the public lands through uses such as recreation, watershed management, and some grazing. Some conservationists even oppose continued grazing, and many have opposed below-cost sales of timber.

In recent years, the issue of aesthetic versus commodity use has been extremely divisive. The "Sagebrush Rebellion" proposed to turn over ownership of the public lands to the states. Environmentalists generally opposed this movement. Other land use disputes include the proposed deployment of MX missiles, the drafting of national forest plans, the designation of wilderness areas, and the use of coal mined on public lands.

The latter issue related to the development of coal-fired electric utilities. Often, as in the case of the Intermountain Power Project near Delta, Utah's coal was used to generate electricity for transmission out of the state, especially to California and Nevada. A project which proposed to use coal mined on the Kaiparowits Plateau, was to have included the world's largest steam generating plant. The federal government canceled the project after opposition surfaced from groups citing negative economic and environmental factors. Beyond these federal activities, the state itself has undertaken numerous environmental programs either alone or in collaboration with the federal government or with other states. People from Utah helped to promote irrigation congresses; the first one, held in Salt Lake City in September 1891, recommended the reclamation of arid lands in the West by irrigation. In 1894 the territorial legislature made it illegal to pollute streams, and concern for recreation led to the early establishment of a Fish and Game Commission. The William Spry administration created a state conservation commission which paralleled the federal commission of the same period.

Utah Senator Reed Smoot contributed to the development of public land and conservation policy during the twenty-eight years (1905-1933) he served on the Senate Committee on Public Lands and Surveys. Smoot emerged as a leader of a group of business-minded conservationists who championed public control of the forests, the creation of national parks, and resource policies designed to discourage wasteful exploitation but to encourage businessmen to invest in systematic development. In 1908, at Theodore Roosevelt's invitation, he accepted the chairmanship of the Committee on Forest Reservations for the National Conservation Commission. He opposed California's Hetch Hetchy project, favored the passage of the National Park Service Act in 1916, and helped to write the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. He helped promote the creation in Utah of both Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. Unfortunately, his general support of the Harding administration and his role in the Teapot Dome hearings have diminished his reputation as a conservationist.

In recent years, the term "conservationist" has fallen from favor, and those who tend to favor aesthetic conservation and oppose excessive commodity use have generally been called environmentalists. This latter group has its intellectual roots in the work of such nineteenth-century precursors as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. In recent years they have championed the creation of national parks, the preservation of wildlife--particularly threatened and endangered species--and the development of wilderness areas.

The history of the National Wilderness Preservation System, established by Congress in 1964, has its roots in the 1920s.

At that time, Aldo Leopold persuaded the Forest Service to set aside one-half million acres in New Mexico as a wilderness preserve. Continuing on Leopold's beginning, during the late 1920s and early 1930s the service created wilderness or primitive areas, including the High Uintas Primitive Area in Utah. After World War II, environmentalists pressed for additional wilderness areas and for general legislation creating them. During the Kennedy administration, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall pushed for a national wilderness preservation system to preserve threatened and endangered species as well as wild and scenic rivers. Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota introduced legislation to create a national wilderness system. In 1984 Congress designated a large number of wilderness areas inside Utah's national forests, but has yet to establish a system of wilderness in BLM-administered land.

Another major aspect of conservation is waste management and prevention of water contamination. It has been estimated that every Utahn produces four to five pounds of waste daily. Cities and industries are required to develop water treatment facilities instead of dumping raw sewage and other pollutants into streams and lakes. In 1974 the Utah Department of Health began regulating the disposal of waste products. Two years later, the federal government enacted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) which gave the EPA responsibility to control and set waste regulations. In Utah, the combination of environmental awareness and state regulations has resulted in the closing of nearly a hundred open dumps that have long polluted the land, air, and surface and ground water. The state has also expedited the upgrading of many other waste disposal concerns, including industrial, commercial, agricultural, and community facilities.

More recently, the threat of hazardous waste has generated an upsurge of interest in Utah's waste management. The decade succeeding the 1979 Utah Hazardous Waste Act has demonstrated the growing importance Utahns place on environmental awareness and protection. Today, Utah has strict regulations for storing, treating, transporting, and disposing of hazardous waste, though some have questioned the relatively low fees required for such storage and wonder whether states with higher fees like California might use Utah as a dumping ground for their hazardous wastes.

In 1976 the Utah Legislature passed the Utah Air Conservation Act and organized a committee with the legal responsibility to monitor and control air pollution in the state. Frequent inspections, and in some cases constant monitoring, are carried out to insure compliance with state regulations and emission restrictions.

In 1970 Congress established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national standards for pollution control. Utah's enforcement of state and federal policies has sometimes come under fire. More recently, however, a growing number of Utahns have become genuinely concerned with the dangers of pollutants and have pushed for stiffer penalties and sometimes even the closure of industries that do not comply with existing standards. Carbon monoxide, generated by automobiles, is the single leading source of pollution in the state. Other sources of pollution include industrial plants, wood-burning stoves, and coal-burning utilities.