Jedediah S. Rogers
242 pages, hardcover: $39.95.
University of Utah Press, 2013.
Some fear that we will saddle our children with trillions of dollars in federal debt. That would be too bad, but it would be a minor inconvenience compared to what our forefathers cursed us with: the 1866 federal law known as R.S. 2477. Like other such gifts -- including the 1872 Mining Law -- R.S. 2477 lays a heavy, destructive, expensive hand on the present.
The statute's 19 words said that anyone who wished to could build a public "highway" across the West's public land. That highway could not be extinguished by the later creation of a homestead, a national park or even a wilderness.
R.S. 2477 was repealed in 1976, but its highways -- sometimes nothing more than rough trails made by cowboys herding cattle -- are still being fought over in the West. That is especially true in Utah, where the state has launched 30 federal lawsuits to establish 36,000 miles of mechanized rights of way through existing wilderness, national parks and monuments, and wilderness study areas.
Into this expensive, litigious mess bravely comes the young historian Jedediah S. Rogers. With Roads in the Wilderness: Conflict in Canyon Country, Rogers attempts to connect two warring ways of life. He asks us to look at roads not only as physical structures but as symbols of culture and history. In Rogers' telling, the Mormons of southern Utah regard the primitive roads their ancestors pioneered as comparable to the naves of medieval cathedrals. To interfere with the public's ability to travel them amounts to sacrilege. But to those who favor wilderness, the sacrilege is motorized travel through red-rock canyons and riparian areas.