For almost a decade, Emily Pitsch’s idea of political activism was to cast her ballot on election day. Then one day last year, she learned that a gondola had been proposed as a solution to traffic congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon, potentially disfiguring one of her favorite playgrounds for trail running, rock climbing and skiing.
“I heard about it somewhere and then I cried for about three days,” said Pitsch, 27, a fifth-year biochemistry graduate student who chose to study at the University of Utah because of the proximity to the mountains.
“I just had this incredible physical reaction. I thought, ‘I have to do something about this because I’m so passionate.'”
Not only the gondola triggers such reactions. Snow turns to rain. Rivers and lakes dry up. erode paths. Construction vehicles dig. Air thickening with pollutants. As more people explore the great outdoors and the areas where they can play shrink, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for “outdoorers” to ignore the impact of government policies and climate change on their favorite recreational areas.
This seems to motivate more people like Pitsch to take action, either by voting with environmental concerns in mind or by getting involved politically on causes close to their hearts. And the effort comes from both sides of the aisle.
The shift has been particularly noticeable in Utah, which has turned the outdoor industry into one of its strongest economic drivers. Outdoor recreation contributes more than $6.4 billion to the state’s economy and employs more than 83,000 people, according to the state Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. But as more people move to the state and take advantage of its recreational bounty, they are faced with problems like the shrinking of the Great Salt Lake, the increased risk of wildfires, and the looting and defacing of its archaeological treasures — problems that are the result of climate change or political politics or both.
According to professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones, who founded the non-profit climate protection organization Protect Our Winters, Utah is in a unique position. Utah has the chance to become one of the first Republican-led states to play a pioneering role in climate and environmental protection.
“Our goal in Utah,” Jones said, “is to unite and educate the outdoor community in Utah who’s saying, ‘We’re demanding action on climate change. And if you don’t, we’ll find someone who will.’
“And in that sense, Utah can be an incredibly powerful state.”
Historically, Republican policy has been supportive of conservation. However, this attitude has veered in the opposite direction over the past decade, with many party leaders favoring the industry or denying that climate change is a problem or even exists.
“It shouldn’t be a political issue,” Jones said. “But it is.”
But maybe the pendulum is swinging back. Jones pointed out that Utah Rep. John Curtis was among the first conservative congressmen to acknowledge climate change and advocate for action, a step he first took in 2019. Curtis has since founded the Conservative Climate Caucus, which also includes Utah Congressman Chris Stewart, Burgess Owens and Blake Moore among its members.
But finding a Republican who will vote for climate change policies is “like finding unicorns,” Jones said, noting that none of the state’s officials voted for the anti-inflation bill, which includes sweeping environmental initiatives. He said the challenge for outdoor recreational athletes – what he calls “the outdoor state” – is getting leaders to turn their words into meaningful actions for the environment.
There was only one way to do that, he said: by voting.
“The reality is that Republicans have never lost an election because they got bad votes on climate,” Jones said. “And I think when that happens, that’s going to change really quickly.”
To hasten this shift, last month the legendary climber made Salt Lake City one of his four stops on a tour to show his latest film, Purple Mountains – which includes more footage of him attempting to bridge the gap to bridge climate change deniers than slide down narrow slides on his snowboard. After the film, he appealed to the 60 or so attendees at the event at the University of Utah to cast their ballots while being mindful of the environment.
It’s actually a pretty new concept in the outdoor community.
In 2020, The Conservation Alliance — a coalition of companies dedicated to protecting wild places — conducted a survey of 1,000 self-identified outdoor recreation seekers. They showed an overwhelming (91%) interest in a political candidate’s environmental stance and a strong electoral appetite compared to 2016. However, despite this increased interest in civic duty, outdoor recreational athletes were 10% less likely than the general public to agree “ “very likely” vote in the 2020 election – which included the presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. According to the survey, if this figure had been true, the voices of around 24.6 million outdoor enthusiasts would have been silenced.
Eric Babajanian, a 32-year-old snowboarder who attended the POW talk, said Jones’ message felt different than the effort to vote when he was in college because it linked voting to issues, that he faces every time he is in the mountains.
“I feel like these missions aren’t doing much,” Babajanian said. “But when you add something very real that impacts our daily lives and something you do for fun, it becomes a little bit more personal. It hits home a bit.”
This is what happened to Pitsch when she found out about the gondola.
��The mountains are so stunning and I feel like no other place in the world has such great access,” she said. “And I see a lot of people take that for granted, and it just annoys me. That’s kind of why I got involved.”
Pitsch found a kindred spirit in Utah high school student Claudia Wiese, a backcountry skier who said she felt similarly sick when she realized the Utah Department of Transportation’s gondola plan could become a reality. They formed the student group Students for the Wasatch to resist the project.
They held their first meeting last December and expected about 30 participants. Instead, nearly 70 showed up for the standing room event.
“In that moment we saw that there was a lot of interest, especially among students,” says Wiese, 23. “And there’s not really a way to express their concern, especially in relation to the gondola, but I’m thinking about the natural space in general.”
It’s one thing, Pitsch said, that appeals to a wide range of students with diverse political and recreational leanings.
Both the construction of the gondola and UDOT’s secondary plan to widen Highway 210 to create a dedicated bus lane would have potential impacts on the watershed that feeds much of the Salt Lake Valley. Still, Pitsch said the faction leadership is trying hard not to associate itself with climate advocacy because it remains a political swamp. Instead, Students for the Wasatch focuses on the economics and feasibility of the gondola project and how it would change the look of the canyon.
“I think this topic is unique because it crosses political borders,” she said. “While I don’t think saving a beautiful gorge, a watershed and plenty of funds should be political at all, unfortunately that’s not the reality of the situation.”
Maybe it won’t have to be anymore. In addition to raising awareness of the gondola project, Students for the Wasatch helps members register to vote, conducts letter-writing campaigns, and gives some students opportunities to speak with lawmakers. With the gondola issue over, Pitsch and Wiese envision the group continuing their political activism while also promoting other protective measures.
“Voting is only the first step to becoming politically active,” said Pitsch. “And of course, before you complain about who’s in office, it’s important to give your opinion on who should be in office.”
Because no matter which side of the aisle you sift in from, they agree that Utah is a pretty great playground. And if they say it together, maybe politicians will hear them.
If not, they can’t say they didn’t try.
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