Tavaputs, Duke & I

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John and Duke attended a secret society’s outing billed as PROTEST AN OIL WANNABE PRODUCT THAT COSTS MUCH MORE TO MINE THAN THE SELLING PRICE; WHOSE BYPRODUCTS ARE TOXIC WATER AND MINE TAILINGS CAMP. The campsite, located on east side of Tavaputs, was in one way an escape to a beautiful, not yet spoiled location. But the very real danger was that thousands of acres were at risk of being industrialized. John wanted to believe that the circumstances were not as dire as Duke’s fears. One morning at camp John spoke to Duke: “A dude named Todd came to me in a vision last night. He seemed to know his stuff. It was almost like a 30 second elevator pitch any budding capitalist would have made in the 90’s. Todd says the mine has developed a patented technology that is able to process mineable oil sands with a much smaller environmental footprint than is possible with other oil sands processing techniques. Employed is an innovative, yet simple modification to the traditional process by using a naturally occurring citrus derivative as a solvent to separate oil from sand. The solvent is biodegradable and non-toxic, and is extremely effective at oil separation. The process avoids the oily liquid tailings that other traditional oil sands mining projects generate and deposit into tailings ponds. The designed extraction process will maximize recovery of water and recycle as much as 95% of the process water. By recycling the water the Company minimizes the amount of heating required and captures and reuses waste heat to minimize heating requirements for make-up water. In turn, this reduces the greenhouse gases generated by the facility and the energy balance for the process is among the best in class for bitumen production projects. Elimination of tailings ponds and immediate replacement of clean dry tailings enables concurrent reclamation of depleted mine areas, greatly reducing the mine footprint of the operations compared to existing projects. The high recovery of bitumen from the oil sands means that less ore must be mined for each barrel of production, maximizing the potential of the resource. The bitumen extraction process developed is best-in-class in terms of environmental impacts from operations. I think we might not be seeing the big picture here.” Duke broke out laughing at John, “What did you smoke last night? If it was more of that desert weed you sometimes harvest, go back to Colorado for certified grass.”

Duke immediately ushered John on a hike through the surrounding area, forcing John to receive a crash course in place-based education. Duke started his impromptu lesson plan with, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” He then sent John out to explore the immediate area with instructions to report back in a few minutes. “What did you see?” John replied, “I saw an unobstructed view to the south of natural beauty. The canyons are different than our favorite places like Road Canyon and Comb Ridge, but just as rugged. Also the vegetation appears to be somewhat different.” Duke replied, “Good observations. The upper 4,000 feet of Tavaputs is the result of ancient rivers flowing from Arizona and the western slopes of the then newly established Rocky Mountains depositing sediments. The higher elevation here allows greater moisture, which, in part, changes the soil. All of this supports scrub oaks and other vegetation we don’t encounter on Cedar Mesa. Ancient Fremont peoples hunted here because of wildlife so abundant that some today refer to this area as Utah’s Serengeti. Theses intangibles reinforce the economic and health reasons of why the mine does not belong.” Regardless of John’s mystified facial expressions during the geology and natural history lesson, Duke sensed early signs of recovery from the prior evening’s nightmare. Reinforcing his message, Duke then quoted from an essay written by Brooke Williams, a mutual friend: “Phase Three, I believe, involves often-ignored ideas from the definition of wilderness: primeval character and influence, forces of nature and opportunities for solitude. I read this to mean places remote enough or rugged enough – ‘nowhere’ enough – to have values we appreciate in proportion to how crowded and noisy, weird, complicated and wired our world gets.” Pausing to allow the nowhere enough message to sink in, Duke continued, “Do you recall how pleased we were that despite the long drive to camp we saw only one vehicle from the time we turned off the highway? Despite the badly rutted road at the end, we escaped to nowhere. Our camp is exactly what Brooke was writing about in his essay. It’s complete with an unspoiled perennial stream, at least for now.”

Despite the clarity and confident tone during the prior night’s vision with Todd, one concept John couldn’t grasp was how the reclamation process would be so simplistic. At one point John recalled interrupting Todd with a story about how decades ago strip mines in central Illinois contracted with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago to transport sewage sludge to reclaim the earth’s scars created by their coal mining operations. But like all good pitchmen, Todd was undeterred as he continued his litany of mine attributes. John asked Duke about the tailings, “Both of us have seen the residue of mining operations. Think of our trips to Colorado where gold mine scars are still present after being abandoned for over one hundred years. The Gold King Mine waste water spill in 2015 turned the Animus River yellow. Granted this was a major breach, but what’s the difference if the toxic waste happens on a very short or long time period? Thinking about what Todd said in last night’s vision, it’s hard to imagine a magic citrus derivative as a solvent to separate oil from sand. Besides from what I have seen near camp, bitumen is contained in rock not clumps of sand.” Duke couldn’t contain his excitement as images of the 1964 Wilderness Act surfaced in his head. Pointing towards the three wilderness study areas in the immediate vicinity he said, “Look around our greater campsite, how can those lands be untrammeled by man with the mine as a neighbor? How can solitude and the mine co-exist? And don’t forget that the mine is leasing the land from the state School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.John started to make real progress when he said, “You mean to say when the mine negotiated its lease with the school trust lands the only consideration was financial? And if so clean air and water have no value? This is a crazy business plan, especially considering the sole purpose of the school trust lands is to benefit school children, our next generation. The school trust administration might as well contact the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago for an additional revenue source.”

Later during the hike John confided in Duke that maybe he had an alternative fact vision concerning oil sands: “With all the alternative facts being created, maybe the same applies to visions.” Duke sensing John was in full recovery mode, reminded him that, “You must be diligent in all aspects involving the four steps of critical visions: identify and challenge assumptions, challenge the importance of content, imagine and explore alternatives, and practice reflective skepticism.” As the nightmare’s effects continued to dissipate, John recapped a trip in the San Rafael Swell. “The Copper Globe Mine was established in the early 1900’s but no actual copper ore was ever produced. The one time when they tried to process the low quality ore onsite the wrong bricks were used for the smelter and the bricks melted before the ore. The smelter collapsed. There are many similarities here, I just know this oil sands mine will have a not too different fate. We have to stand-up against these schemes. Positive visions are required.” Just then Duke’s creative cogs created a bit of spontaneous poetry that reflected the beauty of today’s Tavaputs:

An oasis of Douglas fir and aspens above the desert landscape deer and elk are abundant
 bears and cougars 
cutthroat trout in clear mountain streams

Powell’s Green River cuts through the middle

A special world for ancient civilizations and river runners

AT HOME – Duke found me a number of years ago at a party. Prior to this he was known as Tieko but I took the liberty of a searching out a different name. When Hayduke was suggested as a tribute to the Monkey Wrench Gang’s George Washington Hayduke, Mary’s first reaction was, “It’s a crazy name.” She likely had valid concerns of the Dukes of Hazard reinforced with fear I would then refer to my truck as the General Lee. Prior to Duke’s arrival Mary’s voice was always honored in naming family pets, but not this time as both Hayduke and Duke stuck. For years I have explored the Red Rock Canyon Country of southeast Utah with Hayduke and my good friend Jay as well as with my wife, Mary.

NEAR THE GREAT SALT LAKE- Though the mine is only a bit player, I struggle going to Tavaputs. The chief protagonist is the state’s Scholl and Institutional School Trust Lands (SITLA) that via their charter are predisposed to be whores. If this sounds a bit crass consider this from their mission statement, “Administering trust lands prudently and profitably for Utah’s schoolchildren and other trust beneficiaries.” The only mandate appears to be making a few bucks, about $75 annually on a per student basis. Observations from fifteen years as a Utah resident are that nothing else matters: not the air the kiddies breath, not the water the kiddies drink. The mine’s owners are chasing the mirage of a gold mine equivalent in a half-baked oily substance, bitumen. Change needs to happen with the school trust lands charter. Expand the words profitably and prudently to value clean air and water in addition to the $75. For precedent, go back to ancient Greece where the Hippocratic oath uses the language Do No Harm. The trust lands should be managed profitably and prudently but should not cause harm to Utah’s schoolchildren.


Hayduke and Berkley are excited about going back to the Tavaputs Plateau for another visit. They like the idea of being off leash in a 2 million acre, mostly roadless area. On our first trip here we were rewarded with expansive views of what seemed to be endless ridges and canyons. Mary, the dogs, and I didn’t encounter a single person during our long hikes, which was remarkable considering we happened to come on the opening weekend of deer hunting season. We enjoyed peaceful days hiking down from ridges into adjacent canyons in an almost random manner. On the ridges, our vistas were comprised of three wilderness study areas – Flume WSA, Spruce WSA, and Coal Canyon WSA – as well as the La Sal Mountains some 70 miles off in the distance, dominating the panorama. Two words from the 1964 Wilderness Act summed up our experience: untrammeled and solitude.

Especially on this trip, the dogs’ excitement doesn’t rub off on me. I have work to do concerning the slow expansion of the oil sands mine that is a very short distance from our PR Springs campsite. I am aware that the company operating the mine is almost broke but they have been in that position before as greed and speculation combine to create a unique dance. 
I have come a day early to reacquaint myself with the immediate area before twenty students from Westminster College arrive. Upon their arrival, I am to be their place-based guide. While scouting we come across a weathered memorial plaque dedicated to Lester Legan. Maybe Lester loved coming here in the fall to hunt. If so, his family recognized that these canyons and mesas meant a lot to him. I can almost see Lester driving up the Hay Canyon Road in an ancient Jeep. He would have hiked these canyons, one leading to another searching for a good buck deer to help feed the family. He likely camped near the juniper tree where the plaque is located.

The weekend agenda with the Westminster College students includes an insight of the area’s geology and an introduction to civil disobedience. Geologically, Tavaputs Plateau is a lush island several thousand feet higher in elevation than the Uintah Basin to the north and Moab to the south. Driving through the Unitah Basin, the road climbs steadily after crossing the Green River. Eventually the emptiness of the oil and gas fields is replaced first by a pinyon/juniper forest followed by ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and aspen where pockets of moisture are abundant. One example of the life sustaining water flowing from PR Springs is an aspen forest microclimate. If mysteriously placed in the midst of this having to navigate over, under, and around a dense aspen grove acres in size, you would likely feel that you were in a high mountain environment, not a desert oasis.

The region’s curse is bitumen: “The residual of hydrocarbons that at some point migrated through the Green River Formation, losing their volatile components along the way.” That description, from the company mining the oil sands, hardly sounds like an alternative to conventional oil and gas anymore than the reality that the operation produces far less oil than the water consumed in the mine’s on site refining process. Or, anymore of a good business strategy than the reality that the cost of producing the low-grade oil is two to three times its market price. Or, that the mine tailings will be anything but an environmental scar. No wonder that dating back to the 1970s the intermountain west oil sands and oil shale operations have always been just out of reach as a viable energy source. Yes, there is a pattern here. Crazy idea, but why not invest the same capital and labor in sustainable energy? I ask that question to my students with the preface that as a nation we have enormous energy requirements.

They are receptive to the idea of using some of the thousands of acres leased to the mine as a wind or solar farm. In our afternoon together I am impressed by their knowledge of the geology that shaped this part of the Colorado Plateau. They excelled with a geological timeline that included identifying dates of the formation of the Roan Cliffs via the deposition of 4,000 feet of sediments 53 million years ago (MYA), the reversal of the Colorado River’s drainage 22 MYA, and the first humans arrival on Tavaputs 9,000 years ago.

Wanting to test my students further, I try to draw them into a compromising position with a quote from Roderick Frazer Nash: “Natty Bumppo was a main protagonist, born of white parents, growing up with Native Americans, becoming a near-fearless warrior skilled in many weapons, one of which is the long rifle. Hawkeye (one of his many nicknames) respects his forest home and all its inhabitants, hunting only what he needs to survive … Attraction to wilderness and sadness at its disappearance was only part of his thinking. Cooper knew that civilization also had its claims and that ultimately they must prevail. The elimination of wilderness was tragic, but it was a necessary tragedy; civilization was the greater good. To be sure, in its crude frontier stage civilized society might contain persons of much less worth and even many Indians, but to Cooper this was only semi-civilization. In time he knew that refined gentlemen and ladies would evolve…This was the elite whose sense of law and beauty lifted man above the beast…To have them, Cooper made clear, was worth the price of losing wilderness. He had reached the pioneers’ rationale, without condemning wilderness. For Cooper it was not good verses evil, light fighting darkness, but of the two kinds of good with the greater prevailing.” The students’ commitment to stand-up to the mine does not waver. Nobody falls for the mine’s “greater good” trap.

The other agenda item with my new student friends is a discussion centered on civil disobedience. As per Henry David Thoreau: “If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution if any such is possible.” All of us gathered here are in the formative stage of what this personally means.

AT HOME – Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from his Birmingham jail cell that he viewed his greatest threat coming from individuals “more devoted to order than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” With my indecision on how to move forward, do I represent the negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive solution?