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Are gigantic block letters on mountainsides the next environmental crisis?

Or are they simply part of an undying tradition of school pride?Though most people don't mind if block letters adorn the hills, a small but growing number of souls believe it's a tradition that should go the way of hazing.

"I think it's outrageous," says Salt Lake County Commissioner Jim Bradley, who, even in an election year, won't hesitate to criticize the apple-pie practice of marring the foothills in the name of school spirit.

"It's just terrible that a school would go up and write their insignias on our treasured mountains," Bradley says.

Though the county has no ordinance specifically prohibiting block letters from the foothills, Bradley says he will fight until the last letter is brought tumbling down.

Last year, Bradley sat down with the student-body presidents from Skyline and Highland high schools.

"I gave them a spiel and said, `Don't you think it would be cool if you were the ones who erased those letters?' "

And their response?

"They said, `Absolutely not. Forget it.' That's about as far as I got."

He hopes to have better luck with this year's officers. "At some point, some students will take a stand and get rid of the letters. And they will be the heroes."

Unfortunately for the commissioner, public sentiment isn't on his side.

A recent Deseret News/KSL poll found that 70 percent of Utahns favor the schools' practice of placing letters on mountains. Only 17 percent said they opposed it, while 12 percent said they don't give a "D."

An informal statewide survey of school districts found that no fewer than 41 public schools advertise their school spirit on the side of a mountain. (Please see list on this page.)

Despite the popularity of the tradition, however, some school districts are taking a progressive stand against it.

The Weber School District has a policy discouraging letters from hillsides, and the Davis Board of Education has repeatedly squelched letter-raising efforts in recent years.

In the early 1980s, the board rejected a push by Davis High parents and students to erect a large "D" in the foothills east of Kaysville. The board wasn't unanimous, though. In a heated exchange, one board member sug-gested that if Davis is denied permission to put up a "D," then Viewmont and Bountiful high schools should be required to take down their letters.

In more recent years, the board rejected Bountiful High's request for district funds to purchase the property on which the "B" was located.

"It's the attitude of the board that we protect the environment and not proliferate the scarring of mountainsides," says Davis district spokeswoman Sandra Wilkins. "We prefer students find other ways of creating school pride."

Try telling that to Casey Calder, the student body president of the new Northridge High School. She says she'd like to see a permanent "N" on the mountain above town.

She'll first have to maneuver around principal Ross Poore, who already has dissuaded one student body from such action.

"It's a practice whose time has passed," Poore says. "I question the practice of scarring a hillside in this day and age of environmental concerns."

Poore says Northridge has students who help the state Department of Natural Resources re-claim wetlands. And the school also offers an environmental awareness class.

"Hauling soil away so we could put a letter on the hillside" would, therefore, contradict the school's otherwise strong emphasis on the environment, Poore says.

Another school with a strong environmental ethic is Utah State University, which nixed the idea of an "A" on the mountains above Logan back in the 1950s. The university is unlikely to change its mind.

The University of Utah and Brigham Young University are another story. Both have large block letters above their institutions. Neither is likely to come down.

Recalling when the U. put its letter in concrete, Wilkins says, "I thought, `Gosh, those guys are Neanderthals.' They not only wasted money but they set a bad example for the other schools in the Salt Lake area."

High schools students can, however, look to their older siblings at Weber State University, where the student senate last year voted against putting a "W" on the Ogden mountains. The voted was out of concern for the environment.

But there's more than just the environment to consider.

Poore says schools face liability issues should someone get hurt while whitewashing or doing other activities around the letters.

And Bradley believes there's even a certain criminal element to the practice. It's graffiti, he says.

"Why should we allow schools to put their letters on mountains yet we find it obtrusive for gangs to write their monikers on walls? I see little difference."


Additional Information

Deseret News/KSL poll

Do you favor or oppose local universities and high schools placing block letters on nearby hillsides?

Strongly Favor 46%

Somewater Favor 24%

Somewhat Oppose 9%

Strongly Oppose 8%

Makes No Difference 12%

Don't Know 1%

Poll conducted Aug. 23-25, 1994. Margin of error + or - 4% on interviews of 605 adult registered voters. Conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, 1994 Deseret News. Dan Jones & Associates, an independent organization founded in 1980, polls for the Deseret News and KSL. Its clients include other organizations and some political candidates.