Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

'Most of what I write about is already gone'

Ed Abbey's complicated literary 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.


“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.”


Back in Blanding, Wright’s observations are visible in stark relief. Nearly 40 years after Abbey’s anti-development, pro-environment antics, this town of 1,975 people continues to struggle with the complex and often conflicting values related to the land on which they live and the need to make a living. In the absence of a more diversified job market, such need often demands exploiting the literal bedrock on which their lives are built. Over the past 15 years, such exploitation—mainly in the form of mining— has reaped some benefits. At $47,156, Blanding’s median household income is still well below the national average of $51,939 but well above its own turn-of-the-century figure; in fact, since 2000, the town has seen a 42.94% increase in its average household income. Despite such an impressive jump, it’s not all good news in Blanding. Nearly 18% of the town’s population lives below the poverty line. Steady, salaried work with good benefits can be hard to come by. While most of the area’s mines have been abandoned as employment opportunities shift to the retail and healthcare sectors, the industry remains important, providing employment to more than six percent of local residents.


Is this a tension that Abbey understood? Delorme doesn’t think so. The writer came and went regularly, and even if he wasn’t wealthy, he could, at least, indulge in what many locals cannot: leaving at their leisure. And while he railed against development, Delorme says it was Abbey’s prose that had the effect of spurring on that which he criticized so vehemently. In fact, Delorme posits, Abbey may even be the reason why Moab, just about 75 miles up the road, is the bustling town it is today. His descriptions of the Utah red rock, of the wild, wide open spaces, drew people, even as he hoped it would inspire them to keep it pristine by doing what he himself could not: staying away.

Chrystine Olson, a former Rangeland Management Specialist for the USDA Forest Service who worked in the western states, first visited Moab 32 years ago and recalls it being a sleepy town. Now, she says, it’s like many places in the American West, transformed by development, but not, perhaps, the kind of development one might expect. “Outdoor enthusiasts can love a place to death,” she says. “All those climbers and mountain bikers have needs after they’ve had their adrenaline fix. Moab and the surrounding area have experienced the classic case of a modern western boomtown, only in this circumstance it’s based on outdoor recreation rather than mining, ranching, or logging,” she says. Though the boom was only just beginning when Abbey was at Arches National Park in the 1950s, “he gets it right in Desert Solitaire,” Olson says. In one of many passionate, poignant passages, he wrote: “[M]ost of what I write about is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands.”


At Back of Beyond Books on Moab’s Main Street, there’s a whole bookshelf of Abbey’s work that holds pride of place just at the entrance. There’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, which Abbey dedicated to Sheriff Wright with the inscription, “To the man in the middle,” at a 1985 reading, the first time the sheriff and the monkey wrenching writer met face-to-face. “I put my business card on the table and told him to write any damn thing he wanted,” says Wright with a chuckle. He still has the book. In fact, he brought it along for our ride, keeping it in his lap the entire time. It is in excellent condition.

Andy Nettell, the proprietor of the store, says Abbey’s books continue to sell well, even 25 years after his death. “We sell over 500 copies a year of Desert Solitaire,” he told me via email, “and probably over 1,000 copies of Ed’s various titles, with The Monkey Wrench Gang being his second best seller.” Nettell says most buyers have heard Abbey’s name and “come searching him out,” with the majority of new books selling to an audience of readers born after Abbey’s death. Abbey’s “brand of anarchy and anti-government control, plus his environmental stances resonate well with younger generations,” Nettell wrote. “Ed’s work remains as relevant or more today as ever.” In his bookstore, and around Moab, Nettell says “an oft heard comment is ‘What would Ed think about (fill in the blank)?’ It seems as though many people are looking for a person to believe in, one who is committed to a cause they believe in, and Abbey often fills that void.” In fact, many of Abbey’s readers arrive in this part of Utah on a sort of spiritual pilgrimage, paying tribute to their literary idol by following in his footsteps—or trying to—despite his injunction that they never do so.

Nettell also acknowledges, though, what so many Abbey fans can not and what Abbey himself did not, namely, that the relationship between development and environmental preservation and protection is complicated. “Locals remain mixed on their feelings about Abbey,” Nettell concluded, and “there remain people in town who will never step foot in Back of Beyond because of our association with Ed.”


It’s just after dawn on an early June day in Arches National Park, right on Moab’s outskirts, and the trailhead for the iconic Landscape Arch—believed to be the largest natural arch in the world—is practically devoid of visitors. In a few hours, however, as the sun starts to scorch the landscape, the path will become crowded. People will walk the trail—one of nine in the park classified as “easy”—to its end, a vista beneath the arch that’s perfectly placed for “Ooh” and “Ahh” photos. Off to the right, beyond the frame of those photos, are other red rocks, with a dozen people scuttling up and down them, presumably against Park Service regulations.

Abbey would have detested them, though he often broke rules himself. He was already worried about such behavior 60 years ago, complaining bitterly in Desert Solitaire about the number of visitors in 1956, the year he arrived at the park to work as a ranger. According to the National Park Service, visitation that year was 28,500 people and was even lower—just 25,400—when Abbey left the following year. If Abbey thought it was overrun then, he’d hate to see Arches now. Since 2010, annual visits to Arches have topped a million—more than 35 times the number of park visitors Abbey saw and grumbled about— and in 2014, Arches had a record year, with nearly 1.3 million visitors. Abbey, no doubt, is turning in his grave, which, by the way, is a hole dug illegally by friends in Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta Wilderness, part of the Sonoran Desert. Abbey was explicit about how he wanted to be buried: in a sleeping bag, carried off by friends on the bed of a beat-up truck and disposed on the land to “help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree… to help nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture….”

His grousing is hardly irrelevant. In their 2012 book of case studies about national park management, Robert E. Manning and Laura E. Anderson pose a blunt question in the form of Chapter 8’s title: “How Many Visitors is Too Many at Arches?” A million plus visits each year inevitably impacts the land, the authors wrote, affecting trails, attractions (such as the one-room cabin called Wolfe Ranch), the park’s unique cryptobiotic soil, and its vegetation negatively. To that end, Arches was the first among all of the national parks to implement a “carrying capacity framework,” a concept that gained traction in the 1990s and has since been replicated at many other parks. The framework is complex and comprehensive, accounting for everything from protection of Arches’ soil to overcrowding, but on a practical level, it involves fairly obvious strategies such as reducing the size of parking lots and placing boulders strategically to prevent overflow parking near popular attractions. The carrying capacity model implemented at Arches also involved instituting a permit system, making certain sites accessible only to visitors who want to go through the planning and effort required to secure a special pass in advance of their arrival. Only time will tell whether these efforts will be successful in achieving the elusive golden mean of park management: balancing protection and preservation of the landscape against being responsive and welcoming to enthusiastic visitors who sustain the very idea of the National Park Service and of protecting wilderness even after they leave it.


For his part, it’s unlikely Abbey would have found the notion of the “carrying capacity framework” satisfying or sufficient. By 1980, he felt that even his writing—as influential as it had been for a couple generations’ worth of environmentalists and outdoorspeople—wasn’t enough. The changes he had witnessed in the southwest landscape over 35 years were intolerable to him, provoking a renewed commitment to direct activism. Those changes weren’t just about the number of visitors. Increasingly, they were about entitlement to the land—who claimed it and for what ends—and, of course, what they did to it to achieve those ends.

The Glen Canyon Dam, whose construction began the same year that Abbey arrived to work as a ranger at Arches, was one of the enduring objects of the writer’s ire. The dam, intended to improve water storage and delivery in drought years as well as generate hydroelectricity, was a massive project that took a decade to complete and, obviously, changed the landscape considerably. The cost-benefit ratio as it was explained by proponents never made a bit of sense to Abbey, who galvanized supporters to protest the dam (which he referred to as “the damn”). “If resistance is not enough, then subvert,” he said, and subvert he did. Ken Sanders, a friend of Abbey’s who still misses him deeply “even after a quarter of a century,” recalls an action in 1981 when he and Abbey helped the activist group Earth First! to “drop a 300 foot long plastic ‘crack’ down the face of Glen Canyon Dam.” The action, which was symbolic—the “crack” was a 300-foot long piece of black plastic— was documented in a short 1982 <u>film</u>, “The Cracking of Glen Canyon Damn [sic] with Edward Abbey and Earth First.” Producers Christopher (Toby) McLeod, Glenn Switkes and Randy Hayes considered the “crack” the “birth of the radical environmental movement.”

For fans of Abbey’s literary work, the author represented a somewhat rare breed: a writer who didn’t just theorize or proselytize, but one who lived what he wrote. A number of environmental activists throughout the 1980s and 1990s cited Abbey as their inspiration, and took his advice about subversion to heart. Though he wasn’t the founder of Earth First!, he was its most visible, well-known ally. His support of the group was, say scholars who have studied radical environmentalism, incredibly influential, endorsing monkey wrenching as a viable form of protest. Activists affiliated with other environmental groups, among them Greenpeace, and those acting alone, such as Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived in a redwood tree for more than two years to protest the lumber industry (and who, interestingly, has been called the Ed Abbey of her generation, despite her very different approaches), felt empowered to use disruptive tactics in their efforts to stop dam-building, clear-cutting, and other threats against the environment that were being made in the name of commerce and development. It was a model that would dominate activist groups for a generation.

It is also a model that began to self-destruct by the end of the 1990s. In addition to neglecting the issue of economy—especially small-town economy and livelihood—entirely, extreme eco-activists experienced factions among themselves, with some less radical adherents realizing that they were alienating huge swathes of the general and activist populations, who would not only forego extreme “ecotage” (ecological sabotage) completely, but who might also avoid getting involved in any sort of supportive actions for the environment because they did not want to be associated with what what they viewed as fringe elements. Even Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman parted ways with the group, citing anarchic behavior as a detriment to the environmental movement. Perhaps the best way to get people to care about the environment was to get the general public out in it, to make them fall in love with it. And maybe, thought leaders like Foreman, it was important to hear and at least consider the stories of all the stakeholders affected by development, recognizing that, while powerful statements of resistance and protest, the kinds of activities the eco-activists had sought to block through the monkey wrenching Abbey advocated, could threaten people’s livelihoods and, ultimately, turn them against these sacred places. A more measured environmentalism—and a more realistic one—acknowledges that while human activity is often destructive, it is also, to a degree, inevitable. Finding ways to protect as much of the environment as possible while also creating opportunities for work, economically viable communities, and recreation on public lands is the next phase in the evolution of environmentalism. It is also, of course, far more challenging than monkey wrenching and makes for more complicated and less obviously urgent, beautiful writing than Abbey’s justly celebrated prose.

Towards the end of Desert Solitaire Abbey wrote, as he called it, a “final paragraph of advice,” one that was perhaps prescient:

“[D]o not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”

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