When early Mormons pulled their wagons into the Salt Lake Valley more than 150 years ago, they were greeted by a barren landscape. Today that landscape has, as Brigham Young proclaimed so many years ago, blossomed as a rose.
That blossoming happened because Utahns of all stripes came together to construct reservoirs and canals, build roads and plant trees. Utahns turned a rather desolate valley into what became the destination of millions for the 2002 Olympic Games. We're capable of accomplishing great things. But today that blossoming rose is wilting, and the culprit is dirty air.
2013 began with two lengthy streaks of red air days that should leave us ashamed. For many of those days we had the worst air in the entire country dirty air that was more hazardous than what New Yorkers or citizens of Los Angeles breathe. And that dirty air, the kind we breathe every day all over northern Utah, contributes to increased rates of asthma, depression and even death.
Air quality in the northern valleys is not a liberal or conservative concern and this problem claims the health of Utahns regardless of their position on the political spectrum.
We need a leader of Brigham Young proportion if we're going to prevent this desert rose from wilting. But where is that leadership going to come from? Neither silence nor naive calls for volunteerism alone constitute leadership.
Our leaders worry that our national deficit is mortgaging our children's future but seem to have much less concern for the legacy we are leaving our children in the air. As our leaders tout our ranking by Forbes magazine as the Best Managed State, they should not continue to ignore the fact that our air is the worst in the nation.
As the Tribune asked in a recent editorial, if pollution control is possible with the expansion of refineries, why isn't it possible now? We must refuse to buy the "job-killing" answer. Even if an energy job is lost, a pollution control job is gained.
In fact, according to C. Arden Pope, a Brigham Young University economist, and one of the world's leading experts on pollution, there is $10 in savings for every dollar spent reducing air pollution. Reducing pollution could be an economic windfall for Utah, and those technologies, if developed right here in Utah, could be exported throughout the world.
Solving this issue should align us all: right, left and center; moms concerned about their children's health and Utah's business leaders seeking new opportunities.
Despite overwhelming data to demonstrate the harmful effects of bad air, and the economic benefits of reducing it, state leaders are slow to act. The Legislature balked at Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker's anti-idling ordinance, suggesting it stripped Utahns of their freedoms. Some have suggested voluntary actions make for better policy.
But there is much precedent to suggest that government can and should play a role in encouraging private behavior, even in the absence of regulation. Where have our leaders laid out a comprehensive set of goals, solutions and incentives that will be instrumental in solving this problem, whether through regulation, economic incentive or changed behavior?
Utahns in the past have come together to surmount incredible odds. Making this desert blossom has been a tremendous undertaking, spanning nearly two centuries. But if this desert is going to continue to blossom, serious changes are required.
With the legislative session upon us and these embarrassing streaks of red air days still visible in our rearview mirror and likely out our front window, we ask again: Where is our leadership?
Josh Kanter is the Founder of the Alliance for a Better UTAH and is a member of the Granite Community Council.