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The wilderness idea

How a letter from a U alum helped to open up millions of acres of land to the public.

When thinking about escaping to the great outdoors, many minds go to national and state parks, along with Forest Service and public lands. These places are visited frequently. According to the National Parks Service, national parks alone saw more than 327 million visitors in 2019. But sometimes we forget about our national wilderness areas—the areas being preserved because of the vital ecosystems and wildlife habitat they provide.

Across the United States, there are more than 110 million acres designated wilderness areas in order to provide the highest level of protection, while also remaining open the public.

Wilderness Letter, published by Red Butte Press, Marriott Library, 1995.

The Utah connection

Many don’t know that there are 31 national wilderness areas in Utah, ranging from the highest peaks to the most arid desert habitats. Even less known is the history of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the role that a University of Utah alum had in its initiation.

Wallace Stegner didn’t consider himself an environmentalist. But it was his “wilderness idea,” imparted in a letter to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in 1960 that spurred the conversation in Congress and eventually resulted in the passing of the Wilderness Act. The letter has come to be known as the “Wilderness Letter.”

Preserving the papers of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author

Pulitzer Prize winner of the famed novel “Angle of Repose” and founder of Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program, Stegner had a fondness for Salt Lake City and the University of Utah. He spent a good part of his adolescence in Salt Lake and eventually graduated from the U, where he became of a bit of a star on the tennis team.

Stegner’s typewriter, included in the J. Willard Marriott Library’s Special Collections.

From 1934-1937, Stegner taught at the U. Upon retirement, Stegner contributed his papers to the J. Willard Marriott Library’s Special Collections. The collection contains original manuscripts, photographs, diaries and Stegner’s personal typewriter, among other materials.

“As the repository of the work of this great author, teacher and conservationist, we have a responsibility to not only preserve Stegner’s legacy, but to celebrate it and to offer it up to our students, the community and the environmental thinkers of our time,” said Gregory Thompson, associate dean for Special Collections at the Marriott Library.

Stegner and the University of Utah

The Wallace Earle Stegner Collection at the J. Willard Marriott Library contains personal and professional correspondence, journals, manuscript drafts for work, an unpublished autobiography, memorabilia, scrapbooks, letters of condolence compiled by his wife upon his death, as well as his personal typewriter. Visit the Wallace Stegner Exhibition here.

In 1995, the Red Butte Press at the Marriott Library published Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter” as a fine press book in limited edition. Containing Stegner’s words as well as etchings of Capitol Reef by artist Doug Snow, this exquisite book was printed on an 1846 Columbian hand press.

In 2009, the Red Butte Press published Stegner’s essay “To a Young Writer,” which included writing by Lynn Stegner and Wendell Berry and artwork by Barry Moser.

In recognition of Stegner's legacy at the University of Utah, The Wallace Stegner Prize in Environmental or American Western History was established in 2010 and is administered by the University of Utah Press.

The U’s S.J. Quinney College of Law founded the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment as a place for critical thought around policy and the environment.