Escaping up Interstate 15 from Utah into Montana — the Heart of Darkness!

Oh the horror!

Oppressed by the constant threat of covid, cabin fever, and, more recently, the freakish summer heat, a few days ago I did what many of my fellow Utahans do and drove north, first to Idaho and then to Montana.  Interesting to think that after only five hours I could find myself in such beautiful and relatively untrammeled landscapes.  If I had lived prior to about 160 years ago, or before the invention of the combustion engine, I may have never left my home territory, let alone travelled to distant places hundreds of miles away.  

At one time I would have said that today’s humans are without a doubt better off than at any other time in human history, but today I am feeling skeptical about the human enterprise, particularly as it relates to our treatment of the nonhuman world.  

Today I feel like we have failed.

As I drove north along I-15 and the Wasatch Front, over the border and past Pocatello and Idaho Falls, across the Snake River, and then up to Island Park and beyond, I was reminded of Marlow’s journey up the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I saw a dark menagerie of things I wish I had not seen.  

Animals of all kinds exploded by cars and left along the roadside in mangled heaps; yellow fields, empty rivers, and dwindling reservoirs; the anxious gazes of cows crammed into trailers on their way to slaughter; thousands of harried and restless humans and their waste; and above it all an orange sun muted by a toxic haze of dust, emissions, and the ash-laden smoke of wildfires burning throughout the West. 

The world we are trying to escape to no longer exists except as a false idea. And yet it is precisely this idea, this lie, that we here in the West continue to buy and sell, which in turn takes us further and further away from the truth, and from change. 

For instance, Utah’s Office of Tourism recently trotted out its precious Red Emerald Strategic Plan, whose purpose is to create “Utah travel experiences that are rarefied, distinctive, unique to Utah and highly coveted.” Sounds good on the face of it, but it does not honestly reflect reality.

If all we were talking about were actual emeralds, that would be one thing. But we are talking about natural environments that, as my own travels clearly demonstrate, are open to and easily accessed by the masses and therefore cannot be both rarefied and coveted at the same time.  To suggest otherwise is spin and distortion, and anyone who has braved, say, the chaos and overcrowding of Zion National Park knows it.  

The days of rarefied experiences are gone. But tourism is big money. Therefore, the arms race between reality and spin, truth and falsehood grinds on.

One way the UOT attempts to resolve this tension is to “focus on attracting quality visitation, which means shaping traveler itineraries to promote longer stays, increased spending, dispersed visitation throughout the state and deeper engagement with local communities.” 

This curious formulation tells us a lot about the UOT’s priorities, which have almost zero to do with the preservation of the natural environment upon which all tourism depends.  Rather, the UOT’s priority is catering to consumers who, regardless of their numbers, length of stay, and dollars spent invariably diminish the natural world and ultimately defeat the purpose of coming here in the first place.  

People don’t want rarefied or nature on its own terms.  They don’t want silence.  They want amenities and comfort; they want machines and distractions; they want lies. And anyone with half a brain knows it.

Similarly, UOT’s emphasis on dispersed visitation could work if it weren’t also misguided and, therefore, more of the same.  For here, as elsewhere, the dispersal’s importance—it’s focus—is limited to how its absence would negatively impact the consumer, even though the consumer is the problem!  

But let’s just keep on doing everything we can to make it easier for more and more people to keep doing the same stupid shit we’ve always done without regard for the natural world. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that humans are not the most important species on the planet; we are simply the most advantaged, and that’s only by accident.  

We had our day in the sun and we blew it.  Like the millions of other species that have quietly slipped into extinction on our watch, we are now on the fast track to oblivion.  And that’s fine with me.  We’re getting what we deserve. But did we have to destroy a 4.5-billion-year-old planet and millions of other life forms in the process?






  1. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Western ranchers have warned of being replaced by outsiders they incorrectly identified as environmentalists. Instead, these are now insider neoliberal liberal and conservative recreationists: hunters, anglers, ATVers, hikers, birdwatchers, climbers, skiers, mountain bikers, campers, and bus loads of tourists. These are Republicans and Democrats, environmentalists both corporate and grass root, capitalists both benevolent and malevolent, all proving conservation is what conservation does – which is certainly not preservation and of which ranchers and the NCBA breathe a sigh of relief.

  2. Kate Avatar

    Thank you for stepping out and really telling the truth. Your courage and compassion is deeply appreciated.

  3. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Yes – present day disasters. One (whoever) would think that humans had done way more than enough damage & destruction to the wild places and the native animals that lived there safely & without us for so long. But no, NOW its not enough to slaughter them, destroy their habitat – nope NOW we want to tramp thru their habitat in order to “enjoy the wilderness”, but make it comfortable for US while we do our tramping. I used to think of seeing Yellowstone or other wild areas – but looking at pictures (selfies??) lines of TRAFFIC inside a park – where is the love of NATURE? Nope – I’m happy with my little 4 acres with brush & woods in back where I know there are deer – at least one fox plus all the other smaller species & THEY know they are safe there.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine


  4. Tobi Avatar

    I agree 100%. It needs to be said – over and over. The ever more popular “church of recreation” is destroying what we go to seek; although for some, I swear, it’s just to fill their social media pages with “I was here” selfies instead of seeking out nature for it’s restorative value.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      It certainly does. Great piece, Mr. Werner.

  5. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    I stand by this charge made a few years ago.

    * Nobody calls for carrying capacities and quotas. *

    “Anecdotally (perhaps many readers will agree), most wilderness areas in Colorado (home of the OIA), southern Utah’s red rock country, the Pacific Crest from California to Washington and back round to the crest of Montana are impacted beyond their legislative intent precisely because the BWCWA model was not copied for each and every one, current modern population, industry and technological pressures overwhelming the carrying capacity timid, Chamber of Commerce captured, federal land managers who are increasingly also pressured by formal State Recreation Offices (and resultant Democrat or Republican political delegations, as it does not matter) headed by former OIA staff as part of their official industry strategy.

    Nor do you hear calls for carrying capacities and quotas from even those whose primary nonprofit missions are to to promote and maintain wilderness, from the corporate Wilderness Society that has founder Bob Marshall rolling in his grave to the grass roots Wilderness Watch who believes the Act is the “gold standard for the world,” instead all believing recreation a bridge to supporting public lands and Wilderness, dismissing the hoards.

    However, we do hear calls for permitting systems from these Instagram influencers – in order to protect their experience from the hoards – and not a word about doing so for nature. No matter, as it is a start, and however unlikely maybe their modern influence will extend to the outdoor industry and wilderness will be given a political chance in snowball hell.

    The crisis on public lands, exacerbated by Instagram, remains the same as it was in 1964, of “increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization.” Beyond untrammeled, the Wilderness Act intent was to protect the rights of nature from the natural rights of men and women of all race and creed, in the end “retaining its primeval character and influence.”

    OIA statistics indicate 290 million people recreate in the American West and are 32 million cattle to share the land, including Bundy’s in Wilderness and 1.7 million oil and gas wells in the U.S. to support them all. It is both trammeled and increasingly less primeval and the only new infrastructure we legally need on public lands are gates placed to keep humans of all kind out during the 6th mass extinction and state of climate crisis. We need to transform what we believe benign, inherently good, the UN report on the extinction crisis imploring, “By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

    A first step, we must redefine natural rights to include the rights of nature.

    Further, we must view wilderness Areas as a legal means to create and maintain preserves for carbon sequestration and species survival, only one of many other urgent steps for ‘saving’ the planet.

    If wilderness areas (and all public lands) are today nothing more than corporate subsidies and individual anarchistic playgrounds no longer meeting their legislative intent, we must stop deluding ourselves and treat them like any other vandalized throughout history and delegislate.

    To keep it real so that all humans may take virtuous Instagram advantage of the burgeoning business of industrial extinction tourism.

    A response from George Nickas…

    Chris Zinda complains that Wilderness Watch doesn’t support “carrying capacities and quotas” to limit the number of humans in Wilderness. News to us. Wilderness Watch has consistently supported quotas and limits and has filed lawsuits to enforce them. Where Zinda gets his information or draws his conclusions is beyond me, as he presents not an ounce of evidence for his unsupportable claims. Too bad, his article otherwise makes a good point, but now I’m left wondering how much of it is made up?

    George Nickas
    Executive Director
    Wilderness Watch”

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      “A first step, we must redefine natural rights to include the rights of nature.”

      Hear, Hear!

      It bothers me greatly that it is something that is not addressed in all of they hype for the Green New Deal.

  6. Nancy Avatar

    Should ANYONE (who posts here about the injustices when it comes to saving, securing wilderness areas, wildlife, etc.) wonder why the hell things take so long to address?

    A long, drawn out but excellent example of what it amounts to (legally) when it comes to saving & fighting for what’s left of wilderness areas.

    Some high points that might register in the discussion?

    42:17 in, 44:34 in, 46:53 in, 51:08 in, 51:59 in and 1:02.47

    So my thought? Make an effort and do something! because good things do happen when you care and make an effort 🙂

  7. Kirk Robinson Avatar
    Kirk Robinson

    I certainly agree that some of our most beautiful and beloved natural places are way overused. Plainly, there are just too many of us using them – and I have absolutely no doubt that this includes the likes of us commenting here. I know I do.

    Irony of ironies, I am currently sitting in a cabin in Island Park, ID, a place I have visited every summer (including Yellowstone and environs) yearly for 45 years. And on one of the busiest outdoor recreation weekends of the year too, the 24th of July, when folks from Provo to Idaho Falls amass in Island Park, complete with boats, UTVs, lots of kids, fireworks, guns, etc. Dead moose crushed by semis on the highway at the river crossings are not an uncommon sight, noise is constant. There is no way that Island Park is some sort of Shangri La compared to places in Utah. And no magic happens when you cross the border into Montana either. Hey, I know because I lived in Bozeman and Livingston going on 40 years ago. I’ve seen the changes. You can’t escape the worst of Utah by simply going to Montana. And the governor is certainly no better than Utah’s or Idaho’s.

    I started hiking in the Wind Rivers before it was a designated wilderness. In the mid-to-late 70s I made a few long backpacks, up to 16 days, sometimes alone, sometimes with a few others. Rarely did we encounter other backpackers. Imagine having Titcomb Basin all to yourself! It may be the most sublime place I’ve been, but you can’t get there by car alone: you have to heft a pack and walk 12 miles. I won’t go there now. But you can still get completely away from it all in the Winds if you know where to go and have the wherewithal to do it. You can do it in Yellowstone too, where a backcountry permit is required and numbers are limited. So, if the lament in this article is that you can’t get away from it any more because there are just too many people, it is not true. It’s harder than ever, but you can do it if you have the will and ability to do it. If the complaint is that we are destroying wildlife habitat, and also wildlife, that is certainly true. Yet even here, just across the Buffalo River from Pond’s Lodge, I frequently walk 100 yards to the river and see a great blue heron or a moose. I saw two pine martens several years ago and a black bear last summer. They are here and I am lucky. But I also frequently hear gun shots from across the river, the roar of ATVs, etc. I wish it were different, but my option is to stay holed up in Salt Lake in 105 degree heat. I’ll take the good with the bad. And while what has happened and continues to happen in Island Park is a travesty, I’m glad it’s concentrated here and not over the mountains in Centennial Valley – or, for that matter, in the Deep Creek Mountains and surrounding valleys of Utah – a place every bit as lonely as any place in Montana I know of. And beautiful too. Now don’t ya’all start heading there! Above all, let’s keep bicycles out of wilderness!

    1. WM Avatar

      Well, all that is needed to make a place overused is to designate it a National Park or Wilderness. National Monuments, not so much. That is something I have been saying for close to 50 years.

      And, for the Winds, which I started going into in the 1970’s, those specialty magazines like Backpacker and the internet, and Google Earth maps, have really screwed them up. I used to go to the Elkhart Park, and into Titcomb, and been maybe one of 4 or 5 cars at the trailhead in those early days. You could still drink the water without fear of beaver fever, and in a two week trip you might run into maybe a half dozen hikers, unless Paul Petzoldt was running one of his early Outward Bound survival camps up there. Going in from the Lander side thru the reservation is a little better, but still not what it once was. Same was true of the Bob Marshall, and the Goat Rocks in WA back then.

      And, no bicycles in Wilderness – ever!

  8. Dennis Mitchell Avatar
    Dennis Mitchell

    I fondly remember backpacking in the 70’s, going back to my favorites is depressing. Nothing like hiking for hours back to a high mountain lake, only to be treated to the constant buzz of the ATVs. Or showing up and finding every camping spot around the lake taken. So much for wilderness.

  9. lou Avatar

    When I started seeing the internet news feeds constantly plugging national parks, I knew this was going to be trouble. There were already long lines at park entrances, and when I talked to people about parks they visited, they made a face. Like it was not a good experience. On top of that state tourism offices wanted to cash in and ran big ad campaigns. It seemed to me that the most aggressive campaigns were in states that were only interested in tourist spending, cared not at all about environmental values and the quality of the experience.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      “It seemed to me that the most aggressive campaigns were in states that were only interested in tourist spending, cared not at all about environmental values and the quality of the experience”

      Bingo, Lou!

  10. Hiker Avatar

    All of this has been impacted by Covid. Where I live in AZ we had one the busiest tourist seasons last summer because we were more relatively open than other places. This summer the busyness has moved to parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Besides hearing this on the news I have reports from family. They hiked to a lake about 3 weeks ago that is not even on a trail and reported 50 people there. Normally no one would be there.
    This is bigger than parks or Wilderness. Americans can’t travel overseas like normal so they travel in country.
    I agree with Chris, it’s time for quotas!

  11. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Even Isle Royale, one of the least visited of National Parks has seen an upturn over the years.

    2020 was a wash, and this year, the main conduit to Isle Royale, will only operate at half capacity.

    HOUGHTON, Mich. (WLUC) – Isle Royale National Park will be opening for visitors for the 2021 summer season. … The park says Ranger III passenger service operates May 25 through September 11. Capacity on Ranger III will be held at approximately 50% of pre-pandemic capacity to provide for proper social distancing.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      I keep saying I’m going to have to visit Isle Royale one day. It may be the only chance I’ll get to hear a wolf howl!

      1. Immer Treue Avatar
        Immer Treue

        Better chance to hear howling winter camping in BWCA. I’ve spent 50-60 days on IR and never heard howling. During my winter camping days, about 50% of the time I heard howling. Camping in temps that can easily go -20°to -30°can be intimidating. But there are outfitters up here who do specialize in comfort and safety in those type of conditions.

        1. Ida Lupine Avatar
          Ida Lupine

          🙂 Wow. I think I would be very happy just hearing them.

          1. MAD Avatar

            Ida, make it a priority because it is truly an incredible experience to hear, and possibly to see these exquisite animals in the wild. In the summer of 1996 my wife (girlfriend at the time) had been trying to get into a Master’s wildlife biology program. She needed to get some field experience and had somehow hooked up with the Wisconsin DNR and one of their wolf biologists, Ron Schultz. There was a nasty outbreak of sarcoptic mange in a few of the packs in the Chequamegon National forest. Ron would routinely trap wolves to put radio collars on them so the DNR was having him also document if they had mange, and to vaccinate them also.

            Ron and his wife Carol graciously opened up their home to my wife and I was invited to spend a week also. That week Ron taught us how to set the traps he modified with rubber sleeves so the wolves wouldn’t be injured, sedate them with ketamine and then examine and document everything, finally fitting them with a radio collar before releasing them.

            Everyday the 3 of us would go out and check the traps, try and locate previously collared wolves with radio telemetry and just traipse through the woods. Ron taught us how to howl and it is spine-tingling to hear wolves reply while you’re out in their element.

            That week we trapped two wolves, one very healthy and one in poor shape due to mange. It was scary yet exhilarating to be up close and to touch these animals, although they were totally sedated. Out here in the West, Montana Idaho and Wyoming seem intent on killing as many wolves as possible to appease the ranchers and satisfy the sick bloodlust of a select few. Get out there and hear them soon!

            1. Ida Lupine Avatar
              Ida Lupine

              🙂 I really should, and it’s closer than going out west. The Great Lakes region has such a history too. We’ve talked about it.

              I’ve heard them in videos of course, but nothing would be like that feeling of hearing wolves howl for real! People have been deprived of these experiences.

              Thanks! 🙂

  12. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    ^^Just looking at the map – Grand Portage, Minnesota is very romantic sounding, and you can avoid Wisconsin entirely to get to Isle Royale by going to MN or MI!

  13. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Of course I have heard wolves howling on videos – theres a wolf Conservation place in Salem NY. I’m sure hearing it where they are wild & free is a whole different thing. At my age, its not going to happen – nor am I going to see truly wild & free horses – but I want to KNOW they are there!
    The thought of crowds of people – too many who want a selfie to prove they were “there” – in areas that were and should be left for the wildlife that lives there – really frosts me. Lines of traffic – people climbing out of their cars to get “up close & personal” with wild animals – bison, wolves, bears? Makes me sick.
    I think there has been too much tv & too many videos that encourage “visits” by humans that have no concept of the word “wild”. I’m not very tolerant of anyone who doesnt make the effort to acquire just a bit of knowledge before they push their way into a wild animal’s habitat! (perhaps my age increases that intolerance!!

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine


    2. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      I should add that there is a Wolf Sanctuary near me as well; but as you say, to me, nothing could compare to hearing them in the wild, and knowing they are there, living as they were born to.

      Somehow, having to sacrifice that and a lot of other wild and wilderness so that people can eat beef isn’t worth it, and the tradeoff really stinks. (I don’t eat beef and red meat at all myself).

      Having to hear it second-hand from others’ videos and or being told to ‘go to Yellowstone’ or somewhere that, at least for the present, does have them – just doesn’t cut it.

  14. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    LOL and speaking of “into the heart of darkness”, here’s Utah again, all up in arms (with the NRA!) about wolves when they don’t have any:

  15. Yvette Avatar

    Vanlife, Nomadland and Instagram pictures do make me yearn for the mild summers in Montana I knew as a kid. Things have changed, though. A few years back when I drove highway 12, I saw fire and bark beetle devastation to forested areas I remembered from long ago. Even if I escaped the Oklahoma heat and went West I’m driving into massive fires that now occur every summer. They intensify and grow every year. And this summer? The West got temperatures that we usually get. Even higher. Nuts.

    I did hear that some national parks required reservations this year. Grand Canyon did but not Yellowstone. The pandemic has spurred many new campers and RVers. Even in OK the state parks are booked for camping spots to September.

    One thing though, SARS-COV-2, especially the Delta Vr. is providing us a slight tap on the shoulder to tell us earth will always correct herself and put us humans in check.

  16. NMC Avatar

    Something missing in most of these discussions is far more destructive than simple numbers of people visiting formerly remote places. It is that they never really leave their comfort zones much if at all anymore, and the abundance of fancy gear, electronic gizmos and live cameras makes all the natural world nothing but a backdrop to people’s individual movies and motives.
    The once-innate sense of being immersed in something beyond yourself and beyond description (all Creation) is both humbling and enlarging, but requires introspection of a sort that is the opposite of self absorption. The notion of all Nature as simply a playground to me marks an epic failure in human consciousness.
    To seek and find our small place in this large planet requires a degree of humility that is not sexy enough to sell experiences anymore, to the detriment of All Life. We’ve lost ourselves by approaching Nature as some sort of video game, and we the virtual reality “players” who can go home and report on our grand “adventures” yet end up seeing nothing but ourselves.

    1. Tobi Avatar

      Eloquently stated, and so true!


Maximilian Werner is Associate Professor (Lecturer) of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Utah. He is the author of six books. His seventh book, Wolves, Grizzlies, and Greenhorns — Death and Coexistence in the American West, was published in May. He can be reached at and @ProfMWerner.

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Maximilian Werner