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Commentary: Utah author asks, ‘How do we cope with changing West?’

By Ron Thornburg - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Mar 23, 2023

Photo supplied

Ron Thornburg

What do these recent headlines have in common?

“Great Salt Lake will disappear in 5 years without massive ’emergency rescue,’ scientists say” (CNN.com)

“Colorado River crisis is so bad, lakes Mead and Powell are unlikely to refill in our lifetimes” (latimes.com)

“Climate change made summer hotter and drier worldwide, study finds” (nytimes.com)

Each of the headlines shows the result of man’s effect on the environment and illustrates why geologists say we are now in what they call the Anthropocene era.

Award-winning writer and photographer Stephen Trimble has been thinking about the Anthropocene era since he turned 70 while doing research on a variety of projects. “Geologists have realized that the Anthropocene — this new geologic era we are in that is defined by the human impact on our planet — began in 1950,” he says in the Trails Foundation of Utah’s new “It’s About the Trails” podcast.

Geologists picked 1950, Trimble said, because that is when they first began to see evidence of nuclear fallout in the rocks and when the impact of humans on the environment began to accelerate following the end of World War II.

“So the Anthropocene began in 1950 and I was born in 1950. I am the Anthropocene,” he told TFNU Executive Director Aric Manning during an interview to preview Trimble’s appearance at TFNU’s 2023 Author Dinner on May 5.

At the Author Dinner, Trimble will discuss the dramatic changes in the West he’s documented in words and pictures during the last 50 years. He calls the transformations he’s seen “sometimes catastrophic and occasionally thrilling.”

They include places where the drought-stricken Colorado River has exposed Glen Canyon’s “Cathedral in the Desert” as well as the development at Snowbasin Ski Resort in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Trimble asks: “What will happen to our mountains? What will happen to our deserts? What will happen to our rivers? How do we grapple with change in our home landscape? We don’t yet have answers, but we need to ask these questions.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Trimble titled his Author Dinner talk “A Lifetime in the Anthropocene West.” His father was a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey based in Denver. Every summer, his father would take his family along as he did field work throughout the West.

Trimble began his career as a park ranger at Capitol Reef National Park near Torrey where he and his family now have a home. He’s published 25 award-winning books and received the Ansel Adams Award for photography and conservation from the Sierra Club. In 2019, he was honored as one of Utah’s 15 most influential artists.

His best-known work locally is “Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America.” The 2008 book was the result of 10 years he spent documenting the late Snowbasin owner Earl Holding’s controversial bid to acquire public land at the ski resort’s base in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

It also tells how Trimble himself became a land developer when he and his wife decided to buy property near Capitol Reef and build a home there. He wrote that the “parallels and ironies taught me to see the Snowbasin story in a new light.”

Trimble said he is a huge fan of Bernard DeVoto, the Ogden native who was the subject of last fall’s TFNU Author Dinner. That dinner featured Nate Schweber who spoke about his recently published book, “This America of Ours: Bernard and Avis DeVoto and the Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild.”

DeVoto, who died in 1955, was a mentor and inspiration to author Wallace Stegner, who in turn inspired Trimble. Trimble received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah during the centennial of Stegner’s birth.

Trimble’s latest project is an update of a book he wrote 35 years ago, “The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin.” And while Trimble says he’s proud much of the writing still holds up, the impact of man in the Anthropocene era requires a new appraisal of the area.

Even the book’s title may need an asterisk, he says, as we’ve lost half the Sagebrush Ocean over the last three decades.

“I have no solution,” he says. “I don’t know how we get out of this. The one thing we have to admit is that we can’t grow endlessly. That’s not possible in a place with too little water and with climate change accelerating.”

Tickets for the Author Dinner are on sale at tfnu.org/dinner. Individual tickets are $100 a seat. Special VIP reception tickets plus event tickets are $250 each. Tables of 10 are available for $1,000. All proceeds support the work of the Trails Foundation to build and maintain trails and protect open spaces in Northern Utah.

Ron Thornburg is a member of the TFNU Author Dinner committee and a past chair of the Trails Foundation.


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