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THE DEATH OF WILD & RURAL PLACES

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Joseph DeNiro's house sits atop a ridge in the middle of Murray, in the middle of the Salt Lake valley. Eighty years ago, right before DeNiro was born, long before sociologists invented the term urban sprawl, his father planted an apricot tree on that ridge.

The tree is huge now, its twisted trunk bigger around than DeNiro himself. You can stand under it on a summer evening, looking out past grape vines down to the fields below, and everything is a shade of green or brown. The air is alive with darting starlings and the squawk of magpies.There are mini-malls and car dealers and 7-Elevens just five blocks away. But the view is deceptive here. There are trees and grasses and mountains as far as the eye can see.

DeNiro offers his guest a seat on the patio, in one of the old beauty parlor chairs he retrieved on their way to the dump many years ago.

DeNiro sits out here on sweltering summer nights when it's too hot in the house to sleep. A practical man, not too concerned with the aesthetics of patio furniture, or land, he looks out over the fields and sees hard work.

He spent every summer of his life working this land. He sent three children to college on the produce he farmed. These days he irrigates only a quarter-acre garden; the rest of the land is dry-farmed in alfalfa, which, he figures, will probably bring him about $150 this year.

He suspects that maybe the reporter is actually a real estate agent, come to snoop around his 17 acres. Every so often he gets a visit from a real estate person or some developer, interested in buying up his land to turn the trees and pasture into a subdivision called The Lowlands or maybe Quail Pointe.

His children, who all live out of state, don't want him to sell. But sometimes DeNiro thinks about it anyway. "What's the use of holding onto it?" he wonders. "This year the taxes are $5,000. Next year they might be $5,500, and then $6,000. Where am I going to get the money?"

"One day," he says matter-of-factly, looking over the spread, "this is all going to go."

In some states, the reporter tells him, government agencies or private groups will buy up farm land and other open spaces just to preserve it.

"Oh," says DeNiro, with a look of amusement and skepticism, "you're just bumping your gums."

It is haying season now for Salt Lake valley's alfalfa crop. Drive across I-215 or out on 5600 West and you can see bales drying in the sun. They sit in the fields like tombstones, markers for a landscape that will soon be gone.

In the last 15 years, Salt Lake County lost 80,000 acres of farmland.

In Murray, where just 20 years ago nearly half the land was either vacant or agricultural, today only one-fifth is.

In West Valley City, up until 20 years ago still a largely rural community, planning and zoning officials now see total suburbanization as inevitable. The city's master plan uses the term "in transition" to refer to the remaining acres of farmland.

Meanwhile, Utah is one of only two states in the nation that doesn't have even one non-profit organization working to preserve open spaces. Though some cities in the Salt Lake Valley are buying watershed and flood plain land, the reasons have more to do with water quality, water tables and recreation than with preservation. There is no governmental - and very little private - push to save what's left of the valley's rural heritage:

Pastures and neighborhood corn patches and vacant lots are disappearing; the ditches, and the wild grasses along the ditches, and the old fences along the grass are disappearing, too.

And so are the feelings you get from those places.

Jerold Barnes, director of planning for Salt Lake County, lives in Hunter, where he can still buy corn by the side of the road.

Just seeing the corn grow out there among the housing developments "relieves a person's tensions," he says. He is sitting in the new county offices, in a room where, in the interest of environmental efficiency, the windows don't open.

His office overlooks State Street. But right now he is thinking about the land that he can't see. "We need to preserve it," he says. "But I don't have the answers as to how." He pauses. "We need a Daddy Warbucks."

Preserving farmland and wild places is not a priority of Barnes' planning department.

The only lands anyone can count on staying the way they are, he says, are those in the flood plain or those limited acres with a high water table. "But that's not much," he admits.

For the county, and other jurisdictions within the Salt Lake Valley, open space is often synonymous with golf course.

In Sandy, residents are currently embroiled in a tug-of-war over Dimple Dell, the ravine that some want to see stay in its natural state and others, including the county, want to turn into 18 holes of greens and fairways.

In the Holladay-Cottonwood area, planners are considering the fate of the Old Mill Valley - 600 split-personality acres that include both gravel pits and wild scrub oak. The new plan may include a golf course. It will also include some form of development - probably a combination of business park and housing.

"Nobody can afford to purchase the ground and leave it wild," notes Barnes.

In Jefferson County, Colo., east and south of Denver, the citizens decided 18 years ago that they could afford exactly that.

Since passing a referendum in 1972 to pay an additional one-half of one percent tax, Jefferson County has bought 17,500 acres of wild and rural land.

"We're trying to get ahead of development," explains Ray Printz, director of Jefferson's Open Space Program. "We want to preserve the reasons why people came here."

The county has bought farmland, pastures, mountain slopes, natural habitats - what Printz calls "scenic backdrops." Printz talks about the county buying "visual rights," much as it might buy water rights.

Preserving these open spaces, he says, "retains the character of the area," while increasing land value and cutting down the transiency rate.

In the Salt Lake Valley, efforts to preserve wild and rural places are fewer and farther between but are somewhat encouraging:

(SB) Officials like to point to the Jordan River Parkway, which could eventually provide 110 miles of canoeing, biking and picnicking opportunities along the river, from the Great Salt Lake to Deer Creek. But the plan relies on the vision and funding of a dozen separate municipalities, which may have different ideas about what constitutes open space.

(SB) Salt Lake City is now embarking on the valley's most sophisticated plan for land preservation; it recently hired a local consulting firm to make a master plan for open spaces. Consultant Stephen Smith says the firm will probably recommend preserving the city's west-side wetlands and purchasing land in the eastern foothills for trailheads.

(SB) In the late 1980s, the city worked with a national non-profit group known as the Trust For Public Lands to purchase land at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in order to protect the city's watershed.

(SB) Statewide, the major effort to save rural land comes from the Greenbelt law, which provides tax relief for farmers who continue to gross at least $1,000 a year on at least five acres. While the Greenbelt provisions help keep Salt Lake Valley farmers down on the farm, there are other problems. Estate taxes, the lure of retirement and the aggravations of running a farm in the midst of subdivisions all make more and more farmers think about selling to the highest bidder (see box).

In other areas of the country, private non-profit groups called land trusts have stepped in where governments have not. The Land Trust Alliance in Washington, D.C., oversees 850 local and regional trusts that raise money to buy land or work to get land donated.

According to Jean Hocker, the alliance's executive director, Utah and Arkansas are the only two states without a land trust group. Some states, like Connecticut, have nearly a hundred.

Hocker doesn't know why Salt Lakers have not rushed to form land trusts, although it may have something to do with being able to see mountains no matter what direction they look. There is a feeling in the Salt Lake Valley that the land beyond those mountains goes on forever, and that therefore the land within those mountains will too.

But even Alaska has land trusts, says Hocker. In general, land trusts "are trying to preserve what's important in their communities - farmland, ranchland, coastline, river corridors," she says. In Jackson Hole, Wyo., for example, the land trust that Hocker founded before moving to Washington bought a 135-acre hay meadow, part of Jackson's ranching heritage.

"Protecting the scenery is in the public interest," says Hocker, because "it preserves the character of a place."

An increasingly popular tool for preserving privately-owned land, especially in the West, says Stephen Small, publisher of a newsletter called "Preserving Lands: Legal Issues," is a tax incentive called a conservation easement.

Under a conservation easement, a landowner enters into an agreement with a charitable group or government entity. The landowner gives up his right to ever develop the property in exchange for tax benefits. Since the value of the land is reduced, the value of the taxable estate drops and with it the estate tax. The property tax, too, will likely be lowered.

Land trusts have bought or gained conservation rights to parcels as small as 3-acre pastures and as large as 10,000-acre ranchland. "There are places where even one-half acre may be important," says Hocker.

"There are things you drive past every day that are also worth preserving, things that make a city livable."

Parks and golf courses make a city livable. But so, in a different way, do wild and rural spaces, where the grass grows in unexpected places, growing tall and turning yellow because it has not been sprinkled and mowed.

They are spaces not tidied by curbs and gutters. Places that Utah State University English professor Tom Lyon calls "urban wilderness."

Ann Cannon knows about that kind of wilderness. Cannon belongs to a citizen's committee that is helping to design a park in the hollow at 1700 South and 1600 East. She belongs, yet she doesn't belong.

While other neighbors on the committee talk enthusiastically about lawns, sprinklers and play equipment, she is quiet. Occasionally she asks a question, "Why do we need bike paths in the gully?"

Cannon remembers the hollow as it was when she was a child.

It was a place not to be acted on, like a playground is acted on, she says, but a place that acted on her.

Emigration Creek cut through the clay soil less than a block from her house. There were sego lilies in the gully and a big cottonwood tree. Further upstream, scrub oak gave cover to skunks and raccoons.

"It was wild, of course," she says. "And that's where we children learned about nature itself. I think about the tarantulas . . . and the mice, oh they were wonderful, little brown mice with white ears. We were not frightened of them unless they got in our house.

"In the gully they were good. We learned that there has to be a space for all of us, that we can coexist, human beings and birds and animals.

"There were lizards by the tons. We learned to be still and watch them.

"I always came home refreshed."