Environmental Activism

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Writer Ed Abbey's complicated legacy 

I’ve been in Blanding, #Utah all of five minutes, but already, it’s Blanding- 1, Edward #Abbey- 0.“He was a hypocritical bastard,” says Charlie Delorme of the revered environmentalist and bestselling author. Delorme, who meets me for lunch at a café where employees sear peace signs into the buns of veggie burgers, met Abbey in the 1970s, back when Delorme was a rafting guide on the San Juan River. Inspired by the writer’s work, Delorme had invited Abbey to be a “distinguished guest” on a multi-day trip and was thrilled when Abbey confirmed. Abbey was expected to regale guests with tales of his experiences in the Utah wilderness, inciting the same kind of passion he had for this special place. But once on the river, Delorme says, the only way Abbey distinguished himself was by his unbecoming behavior. “He was drunk and aloof,” Delorme recalls. “Tony Hillerman and David Lavender? Now they went above and beyond. Absolute gentlemen. But Abbey?” Delorme shakes his head and takes another bite of his fish taco.

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“I always wanted to get an ‘Abbey Sucks’ bumper sticker, but I could never find one” says Rigby Wright, the 80-year old former sheriff of San Juan County and one of the characters—an antagonist, of course—in Abbey’s 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. It’s the story of four eco-activists always trying to evade the law, and it wasn’t too far from Abbey’s own reality. 

Between 1970 and 1986, Sheriff Wright, a fifth-generation #Mormon and resident of Blanding since he was two years old, was responsible for enforcing the law in this 8,000+ square mile county. It was no easy task. The land is rugged—all red rock and sage brush—and large stretches are uninhabited… by people, anyway. If you drive through the heart of the county today, as I did with Wright, the land feels indifferent. Wright says it is. He reels off tale after tale about crimes committed against this beautiful but desolate backdrop: crimes of passion staged as suicides, looting of unexcavated and unprotected #Native American pueblos, and monkey wrenching, fouling up the operations of miners, loggers, and other developers, mainly through covert acts of sabotage. “Cutting electric poles, putting sugar in gas tanks, removing survey stakes, that sort of thing,” Wright explains.

Wright worked all these types of crimes, of course, but he considered monkey wrenching a special sort of nuisance. Always understaffed and underfunded, Wright and his force couldn’t even hope to keep up with all the troublemaking. And while crimes of passion are more dramatic and looting seems like a particular class of culturally insensitive greediness, wrenching, says Wright, is really the most disruptive crime because it threatens people’s livelihoods. “You can agree with Abbey about saving the #environment, but not when you hurt individuals,” he says. Wright believes Abbey—an outsider, born in Pennsylvania— and his activist cohorts were convinced they were doing something for the greater good, but they never stopped to consider the most basic issues affecting locals’ lives: jobs and #money. For Wright, idealism and notions about how the wilderness “should” be are always trumped by the pragmatic necessities of day-to-day life in a way that was never the case for Abbey. “He was a rabble rouser,” Wright says of the writer. “I didn’t hate him, though. It was nothing personal.”

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