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Our leaders must lead

Maybe, in 1847, Utah was the place.

But by 1965, the place for Utahns was California: neat freeways, cool shopping malls, nifty new subdivisions, the golden arches of McDonalds and, of course, the Beach Boys.Perhaps we didn't quite worship the West Coast, but we hovered near that point, paying homage at every opportunity. If we weren't packing into the station wagon for a weeklong visit - and wishing we could bring a bit of it home with us - we were making plans to relocate and permanently tap the promised milk and honey.

Quite simply, we loved what California had. And California had what it had because, many years earlier, it had been discovered.

Now, nearly 35 years later, we've realized that Utah isn't just a pretty, great place. It's a terrific place. And it, too, has been discovered - by outsiders and locals alike. But like the great discoveries of the colonial era, the very thing that made a place a jewel is often eroded by the discovery itself. Deterioration, it seems, is a natural consequence of being discovered.

Conversely, an undiscovered discovery is of little value. Hence, discovery, in and of itself, isn't bad.

As I write this column I am somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, en route to Nagano, Japan, for the 1998 Winter Games. There is, of course, only one reason I'm going to Nagano: the Olympics are coming to me in 2002.

So, Utah has been discovered and blessed, yes blessed, with progress. Progress has allowed us to more fully enjoy what we have, to be enriched by a diversity of cultures, and, egotistically speaking, enjoy a compliment or two from neighbors, both foreign and domestic. That all, quite frankly, feels pretty good.

It's just that progress - growth, if you will - has to be managed.

Years ago, a good friend of mine, Gary Swensen, was in charge of Salt Lake County's parks and recreation. I remember running into Gary one day as he fought an uphill battle to set aside land for future parks.

Most people thought it was a good idea. But nobody wanted to commit the money.

"In a selfish sort of way," I recall Gary lamenting, "it really doesn't matter to me. I've got a nice home and a large yard. My kids have a place to play. I don't personally need any more parks. But someone does."

He's right. Someone does need parks - and transportation and housing and safety and education and human services and open space. We all do.

While my love for the Beach Boys has, over the years, remained solid, my infatuation with California has appreciably softened. Now I realize that it's Utah I love. I love the mountains, the red rock, the culture, the people.

And I don't want to see that destroyed.

Over the past several months, I've watched as 16 Deseret News reporters have teamed with editors, photographers, artists and designers to produce an exhaustive series analyzing Utah's growth - with particular emphasis on the difficult choices that growth presents us.

Over the past 45 years, I lived that growth. I've watched those choices unfold.

That combination of experiences has led me to a single inescapable conclusion:

Growth must be managed from the top down.

It's just that simple. (Even now, I can hear the clatter of keyboards as independent-minded Utahns fire off stinging letters to the editor lambasting such a socialistic notion. Truth be told, I, too, find the notion a little uncomfortable.)

But, as I said, the conclusion is inescapable.

Thirty or 35 years ago, my friends and I spent a lot of time in and around the Jordan River. We fished for carp, caught frogs and drifted downstream in inner tubes. We loved it, but the place stunk (at least that's what my mother told me), and the river was little more than a canal, with gravel banks and little natural vegetation.

Today, I spend even more time around the river. I jog in Murray's Jordan River Parkway. Ducks and other wildlife call the place home. Natural vegetation is plentiful. Simply put, the place is beautiful.

Someone - former Murray Mayor Lynn Pett among others - had some vision. Someone took some action. Someone ensured that the river was reclaimed and the area's natural beauty was restored.

During the hours I spent editing material for this series, I was stunned by the lack of will - among Utahns and their leaders - to tackle growth head-on. Competing issues complicate debate. But that's as it should be. This is, after all, America, where we recognize the value of diversity of thought and revere the democratic process. But amid the confusion, leaders have to lead. They have to act. Like the coalition builders of a parliamentary government, they must arm-wrestle us, if necessary, to a consensus.

In her column running on A1 of today's paper, state government reporter Lucy Dillon notes that, when asked how as czar they'd oversee Utah's growth, Utah's leaders displayed a monumental lack of creativity and foresight, opting instead for stock answers that amounted to little more than platitudes. Not surprisingly, those with the least political stock to lose were the most generous with their ideas.

While the realities of public office can understandably sometimes inhibit the free-flow of elected-official thought, they should not restrict the will to be bold. Yes, local control is not only an American tradition but is probably where most decisions are best made. But local leaders inherently suffer from nearsightedness. And yes, individual rights should be cherished. But democarcy is founded on the idea that the few must sometimes give way to the many. So must it be as we manage Utah's growth.

Utah in the 21st century needs mayors, commissioners, legislators and governors who will lead, cajole or drag competing groups to the bargaining table and refuse to leave until good decisions are made. The decisions might not initially be popular, but indecision is very ugly: Las Vegas and Los Angeles come to mind.

In short, we require the will to manage our destiny. We can accept nothing less.