Contributed by Paul Di Salvo
I ran into Tyler Coleman recently at The Wildlife Society Annual Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico this past September. I had just finished exploring some National Park Service units of New Mexico and Texas and had drove through an incredible National Forest, the Gila. I met Tyler through one of my colleagues from the TWS Leadership Institute and we got chatting about his passion for wildlife and their habitats on public lands. He was kind enough to give me a call a few weeks after the conference to share his thoughts on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
Tyler Coleman has always been an explorer of public lands. He grew up not too far from what was then known as the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, just northeast of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. As of 2007, this forest has combined to become the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Currently, the forest spans over 1.6 million acres, including seven designated wilderness areas totaling 309,000 acres. With its new boundaries, the grandeur and excitement this land brings is even more amplified.
Paul: Out of all the public lands in the country, why did you choose U-W-C as your favorite?
Tyler: So for me, it just was the forest that was really home. If you’ve ever been to the Salt Lake Valley, the Wasatch-Cache just borders the city and stops right at the forest boundary and in fact the wilderness boundary in some cases. It was just always where you went to have fun. I’ve spent a lot of time on other public lands but this was just the place when I was younger that I spent most of my time. If there’s a “formative years” for the concept of public lands that would be it for me, and for probably most of the people that live in that corner of the world. The forest boundary was just a short walk, maybe a mile, from my school growing up.
What is the most memorable adventure that you had at U-W-C?
It’s really tough to nail down. I spent so much time there. I would say if anything, it’s the place where you went to ski in the winter, to hike in the summer, to fish, to hunt if you like to hunt, and so there was always something to do. For me, I went all the time, sometimes more than all of my family members. Definitely took it for granted at times, in retrospect. When I was in high school for example, it was a place to get away from school, to get away from my family, for a couple of hours. I remember consistently hiking with a friend almost every day after school. Just an hour to bust out. It was really kind of fun. Within just a couple of turns off the trail, you could not be seen for hours or days really.
So you did all those activities? Hunting, and skiing, and fishing, and hiking?
Definitely less hunting. But yeah, all the other stuff, absolutely. All the big-name ski resorts in Utah are on public land—there Forest Service land leases—the places like Alta and Snowbird, Solitude, Brighton—those were places we went consistently as a kid. Those same places have great hiking, campgrounds, and fishing all summer. It was just a short drive. Sometimes as a family we would just go up and go to a campsite and cook a huge breakfast and go hiking or exploring or whatever.
Why is U-W-C important? If you had to convince someone that lived in New York City who had never been to U-W-C, or even Utah, why they should care about this wonderful place, what would you tell them?
I think a lot of people just don’t know that you can have an urban life and property that close to public land. Some people figure it out and move there. At the University of Utah, there were some students that figured it out and moved there just so they could go hiking every day after class or go skiing every other day. I think unfortunately people from other parts of the country don’t know that there’s places where you can have both things in your life if you want them. As far as Utah, no one doesn’t know about public land in Utah so it’s hard to tease out one over the other. It would be hard to impress upon anyone in Utah one reason or the other why or why you shouldn’t go there. I guess it sounds a little callous, but these places are real drivers for the economy, especially a place like Salt Lake City. I mean, millions of people visit Utah just to go to these public lands and for skiing, as well. Economically, it is very important to the state.
If you had a 95-year-old man who had never left New York and probably was not going to be traveling on a plane and are probably at the end of their life, why should they care about this place?
I think kind of the same reason. I mean as far as relevance, it is kind of amazing to have places where there are a large number of people adjacent to incredible accessible, well protected, cheap, free, beautiful, and quiet public lands. Just because it is something you can’t visit, just knowing it is there is important. Just because this 95-year-old guy in New York can’t make it, it should do him or her well just knowing that their grandkids could go there. They could have a life that has all of those things. And just letting people know that is important to other people. If you don’t grow up in a big urban area or in the West, it is just as important as say something that is important to someone in New York. I haven’t been to New York, but say it’s just as important as the World Trade Center was, for example. Taking those things away would be just as of big of a deal.
That’s really powerful. I think some people don’t always think of public lands as of that high of an importance and they don’t necessarily always equate it to some of the manmade structures that we have and hold dear. I think it’s a poignant statement.
Yeah. It’s there every day. In a place like Utah or Salt Lake City, you can see wilderness areas the second you walk out the door at your house or the second you walk out of your office. It’s always something that’s there. It’s just the way the World Trade Center was always there for the people in New York until one day it was gone. So, it’s just as important, and in some ways more to me, because it’s something that is everlasting, so to speak.
Utah seems to have an incredible amount of notoriety for its public lands, from ecological essays by Terry Tempest Williams, to Native American oral histories, to the iconic Delicate Arch, to political speeches about different land management practices. Why do you think Utah’s public lands have such notoriety?
It’s the diversity that brings people. If you land at an airport in Salt Lake City, you can be in one of three major physiographic provinces in just a couple of hours—the Great Basin, the Rocky Mountains, or the Colorado Plateau—and each is incredibly fascinating in its own right. To be able to go from a 13,000-foot peak and in a couple of hours be in a Colorado River chiseled-rock desert is pretty spectacular and there is very little like that in the world that has that level of accessibility. To me, that’s always been what draws people—there’s nothing else quite like it in the country or even the planet. There’s something so unique about that diversity that you’ll only see there. There’s no other place like Arches, period. Now Rocky Mountain National Park is beautiful, but if you drop someone in the middle of the Canadian Rockies, they might not know where they are. There’s something comparable, but there’s nothing else like Arches anywhere. If you’re someone that just wants to digest different federal or public lands, Utah’s just the perfect place.
US Forest Service lands have an interesting history. Not only do they have the mission “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations”, they are known for their slogan “Land of Many Uses”. How does this compare with your philosophy of how America should manage its public lands?
The idea “Land of Many Uses” can fit very well. To me, that doesn’t necessarily mean one piece of land has multiple uses. To me, that means that one entity/one forest/one park/one BLM office can have one specialty. Maybe there are places that we should focus on grazing. There’s places where we should just focus on mining. And maybe there’s BLM or Forest Service land that we should just focus on recreation. And furthermore, maybe there are places where we just shouldn’t focus on anything and keep it as preserved as possible, like wilderness areas for example. I think it’s fair that U-W-C is primarily managed for recreation, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other parts of the forest system that don’t get logging pressure and maybe they should or that’s ok and that’s because there are other places where that use fits better. It would be really weird to log in the U-W-C near Salt Lake City because it is such a hotbed for recreation. That doesn’t happen—it’s almost exclusively outdoor recreation and that to me works. That concept of “Land of Many Uses” works as long as it’s tied to multiple places and not just one specific place. Multiple uses should happen simultaneously in one location. And it’s not that this method isn’t frustrating at times. A lot of people don’t like the visual aspect of logging, but my house is made of wood, and it’s the reality of life. It’s unfortunate that trees are so pretty, but we still kind of need them.
There have been many fires that have plagued public lands this year, particularly National Forests. What considerations should be made to ensure that these lands are protected?
Returning to a traditional fire regime for these forests. For many of these places, the fires have been suppressed for years and the natural progression of a forest has been interfered with, leading to fires becoming a bigger and bigger problem. So as best as possible, we need to return the lands back to its natural fire regime. I know that is not always possible and it has to be handled case by case. In certain situations that might involve thinning, prescribed burns, timber removal, or stopping building houses. But as best as possible, allowing a natural fire regime or process to resume is probably the best solution in my mind.
Do you know U-W-C’s fire history?
I think they operated under the same forest plan as the rest of the country where fires were put out consistently after 1900. As infrastructure began to grow in the nearby canyons—ski resorts, lodges, cabins—fires would continue to be put out, but inevitably something in the system breaks. Some of the foothills of the U-W-C are scrub oak, which has a very short fire cycle of just a few years, so it burns. You see that in California right now. I can’t remember any one big fire. In the West, there’s always something popping up.
I’ve seen the quote “There’s no Wi-Fi in nature, but you’ll get a stronger connection” thrown around a lot on the internet. Describe the connections you make on public lands, whether that is with nature, recreation, resource extraction, or something else.
I just like to know these places exist and when I’m there I’m reminded of it. I want to live in a world where that is a possibility. It’s easy to forget. You get tied down with your work, family, etc. and you just lose some connection to the resource and you forget that this is real, is tangible, and I want this to continue. Nature is happening in other places and I’m just happy to know it’s around.
How can you continue America’s legacy of public land stewardship?
Voting for the right people, people that are proponents of public land. If you’re not willing to support decisionmakers, then you’re not doing your job as someone who is even remotely interested in public lands. There’s always going to be an attack on public lands. Not all countries have them. Not all states have them. Some people don’t agree that we should have them. To me, there’s no excuse for not aligning yourself with decisionmakers that are pro-public land. If I am to continue the legacy of public lands, it is that I am responsible for putting people in power that make those right decisions.
If you could visit any natural setting outside the U.S., where would you go?
I’ve always been interested in going to the arctic. I’ve never been. The Canadian Arctic, Scandinavia, Russia- it wouldn’t really matter. But it would be fun to do something there, maybe work or participate in a research project. I’ve always wanted to do that and apply for jobs there. It’s never happened but it sounds like fun. Ideally to spend a few months. I’ve had some friends who have lived in Antarctica and the Arctic Circle and I think it would be fun to try it for a while and immerse myself in it, not necessarily just visit.
S’mores or campfire flapjacks?
I like S’mores. You got to like things that are lit on fire!
Cover photo courtesy of Tyler Coleman