Over the years, author and historian T. H. Watkins has helped keep Sierra on
course. When we first met him in the late 1980s, he was the editor of The
Wilderness Society's magazine, Wilderness, in Washington, D.C. He never wrote
for Sierra, but he kept an avuncular eye on our work. He hailed our feistiest
political coverage, cheered our public-lands articles, and professed "fetid envy"
over an issue we devoted to 21 ecoregions in the United States and Canada. A
comment from Watkins like "bad idea" (we had asked him and others to write about
their most embarrassing experiences in the great outdoors) could cause us to
rethink our plans. "Hell of a job" gave a lift to our day.
Watkins' own mentor was famed author Wallace Stegner, with whom he worked in
Berkeley, California, in the 1960s on a small, now-defunct magazine called The
American West. "I was just lucky enough to encounter him early in my professional
life," Watkins says, "and just smart enough to listen to what he had to tell me."
Watkins later moved on to American Heritage and Wilderness, but his course as a
wildlands defender had been set. He wrote many books along the way, including a
1,000-page biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Interior secretary, Harold
Ickes, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for biography in 1991.
Perhaps the saddest day in Watkins' career came in 1996, when his beloved
Wilderness folded for financial reasons. After 21 years of living east of the
Mississippi, Watkins decided it was time to come home to the West. He now teaches
at Montana State University in Bozeman, and has begun research on his 29th book,
a biography of Stegner.
A few months ago, Watkins and I talked about one of his favorite placesUtah. He
goes there for solitary hikes, four or five days at a stretch, allowing plenty of
time for sitting, waiting, watching. Just thinking about those trips fills him
with messianic zeal. "Whenever I'm flying to Los Angeles," he confided, "I'm
entirely capable of getting out of my seat to lean over some hapless fellow
passenger to see whatever I can of southern Utah. When the angle of the flight
path is just right, I'm tempted to grab people and shout, 'There! Right down
there! The Dirty Devil River! The Henry Mountains! The Escalante! Look! Look!
Isn't that great?' "
When I asked him if he would be willing to write an introduction to the gallery
of Utah photos in the printed issue, he instantly said yes. His
only caveat: "Be forewarned, I am helplessly addicted to this place."