Bargaining for Eden

WHAT DRIVES individuals and corporations to erect mega-malls and luxury resorts in place of open meadows and sleepy communities? It is quite literally the million-dollar question. Money, however, is usually only part of the answer. As Stephen Trimble writes in Bargaining for Eden, “Caught between dreams, we are all greedy, and we are all generous. How then do we create a structure for our communities that expresses our altruism more than our self-interest?”

Eden focuses on Earl Holding, one of the nation’s largest landowners and a reclusive Salt Lake City mogul in charge of Sinclair Oil, Sun Valley ski resort, and the Little America hotel chain. A secretary once inquired if Holding was pleased about the acquisition of a parcel next to one of his ranches, to which he reportedly replied, “I won’t be satisfied until I own all the land next to mine.”

Back when Utah made its play for the 2002 Winter Olympics, Holding used the opportunity to super-size Snowbasin, a beloved and unpretentious ski area in the Ogden Valley, east of Salt Lake, into a sprawling year-round resort. The plan hinged on a controversial land exchange: Holding needed to trade some private parcels for Forest Service land adjacent to Snowbasin where he wanted to build his “resort village.”

Government officials concluded the exchange would be a loser for the American public, and Olympic organizers said the expansion wasn’t necessary for Snowbasin to host downhill-skiing events. But Holding managed to get his way with grand help from Utah’s congressional representatives, who, through an act of Congress, circumvented the federal government’s land-exchange criteria and exempted the deal from environmental-planning rules.

Trimble explores Holding’s compulsion toward extravagant development in spite of environmental damages and community outrage. (Holding declined requests to speak with Trimble, who confesses that he is not Michael Moore when it comes to confrontation.) The author is critical, yet careful not to vilify his subject.

Instead, Trimble shifts gears and examines his own prejudices. He favored the Clinton administration’s designation of Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, even though the declaration similarly dismissed locals’ input and their vision of their home landscape. Then, when Trimble purchases property and builds a home near Capitol Reef National Park, he scrutinizes his own involvement in his new town, writing, “I bought land not to infiltrate the community but because I loved it and was fortunate enough to be able to pay for it.”

Trimble’s alignment — sometimes with the powerless, in other cases with the powerful — challenges readers’ attitudes. An estimated 80 percent of western ranches will change ownership in the next two decades. Bargaining for Eden ultimately asks what we are doing as landowners, neighbors, and citizens to ensure that our changing communities are rooted in, not greed, but generosity.