It's been awhile since the Sierra Club has had much of a local presence in Utah Valley. Nestled between Utah Lake and the Wasatch Mountains about half an hour south of Salt Lake City, the fast-growing valley centers on the cities of Provo and Orem in Utah County, sometimes referred to as "the reddest county in the reddest state in the union."
But for the last year the Utah Valley Sierra Forum (UVSF), some members of which are pictured above at an outing to the endangered wetlands of Utah Lake, has been meeting monthly at the Provo Public Library. Comprised largely but not exclusively of Sierra Club members, the UVSF isn't an official Sierra Club group, but it operates with the blessing of the Utah Chapter office in Salt Lake City. In addition to its monthly meetings, the group conducts outings, organizes rallies, hosts panel discussions and speaking engagements, and sponsors a variety of green events.
"We're happy with our status as an informal Sierra Club group," says UVSF Chair Jim Westwater, below. "We do the kind of work we want to do, enjoy fellowship, and get results along the way." The group doesn't yet charge dues, but some of its elected officers have been invited to chapter ExCom meetings, and it is closely involved with the Club's statewide efforts.
Photo by Erin Bardonner
Westwater and his wife Merrilynn moved to Utah Valley from the Midwest in 2004. "We relocated here mostly for the world class natural beauty and outdoor opportunities," he says. "I'd been a Sierra Club member for 25 years, but moving to this incredibly beautiful part of the world and seeing how we humans are increasingly harming the planet spurred my activism."
Hoping to team up with other "like-minded and like-spirited people," Westwater contacted the Club's Utah Chapter office to get info about the local group in Utah Valley, only to learn that it had been defunct for more than a decade. But there were still about 200 members in the valley, so he decided to host an informal get-together.
"The chapter office agreed to send out a postcard to all Utah Valley members," he explains, "inviting them to a party at my home to decide what kind of presence we might collectively want to have in this valley." Twenty-six people showed up and decided to "reactivate," albeit unofficially, drafting Westwater as the group leader.
One of the UVSF's first orders of business was to set up a Web site in blog format, hence inviting comments and feedback and helping foster a sense of community. The site outlines the group's objectives and provides updates on relevant topics, links to related Web sites, and info on monthly meetings, other events, and how to join the forum and the Sierra Club.
The UVSF's priorities have been wilderness and public lands preservation, smart energy, clean air, smart transportation, sprawl, water issues, and nuclear waste. More specifically, the group has been: promoting public transit alternatives to the Mountainview Corridor, a proposed 8-lane freeway that would harm nearly 50 acres of Utah Lake Wetlands; advocating for transit-oriented development; promoting energy conservation and opposing more coal-fired power plants in Utah and neighboring states; and promoting more designated wilderness, particularly America's Redrock Wilderness Act, which would protect more than 9 million acres of BLM lands in Utah.
"We now have more than 300 people on our e-mailing list," Westwater says. Although it's not mandatory, members of the forum are encouraged to join the Sierra Club. But Westwater says the idea of public education is paramount. "We're attempting to work with all 'players' in this valley known for its conservatism, and to move this part of Utah in better, smarter, healthier and sustainable directions. I'm encouraged with the prospects, but I know it will require lots of effort, patience, and the involvement of many others."
Nuclear waste disposal is a big issue in Utah, which has no nuclear power plants yet, but is proposed as a recipient of such waste at a disposal site 80 miles west (upwind) of Provo, Orem, and Salt Lake City. This summer, the UVSF invited both HEAL Utah, the primary anti-nuclear group in the state, and EnergySolutions, which operates the waste disposal facility, to participate in a public forum. EnergySolutions declined to present and defend its position on equal footing with HEAL Utah, but subsequently agreed to make its case at a UVSF meeting so long as it was not on the same program as its adversary.
In July, the Deseret Morning News ran an article, "Sierra Club is blossoming in Valley," which stated that the Utah Valley Sierra Forum is growing in number and purpose. "I think we're on the cusp of a wave because everybody's starting to be worried about global warming," UVSF leader Bepe Kafka told the Morning News. "People from all over come to our meetings; our membership has the full spectrum of people."
Among the UVSF's activities are service outings, like the cleanup of Diamond Fork Hot Springs pictured above, where volunteers bagged five sacks of trash from around the springs and nearby waterfalls. In September, the UVSF was deeply involved in establishing the first annual "Living Green in Utah Valley" Expo in Provo, pictured below, featuring green exhibitors, environmental demonstrations, and guest speakers such as Governor Jon Huntsman's energy advisor, Dr. Diane Nelson. Other recent events include a lecture at the Provo Public Library on "The Air Quality Crisis in Utah Valley," featuring a presentation by the newly-formed Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and Utah Moms for Clean Air.
There has been some perhaps predictable negative reaction to the Sierra Club's rekindled presence in the valley from residents who instinctively don't much cotton to environmentalists in general and the Sierra Club in particular. "But we're gaining traction," Westwater says. In addition to more and more people coming around and embracing a greener point of view, he believes partnerships with students and faculty at Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University—which between them have more than 50,000 students—hold great promise.
"We're not here to say we know all the answers," he says. "Our objective is to help move this valley in a more sustainable direction for the good of all of the people who live here. We think it makes sense to try to behave in a responsible, intelligent, healthy way. After all, this is our home, right?"
All photos by Jim Westwater, © JNWestwater, unless otherwise noted.
Photos used with permission.