Bargaining for Eden

The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America

In Review

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As people who love the land, environmentalists often desire to have a piece of it they can call their own – a place where they can find reprieve from the pressures of the city and observe firsthand the natural beauty they wish to protect.

But it is the rare environmentalist who can afford to purchase land for no other reason than to leave it completely untouched. The land was purchased to be enjoyed, after all, and in order to maximize that pleasure, there is generally some degree of altering it. Even the most basic of cottages will leave an environmental footprint, no matter how small that may be.

And so the paradox begins. You either live far away from the land you love or you change it in order to have a closer relationship with it. Little by little, wild America disappears.

Stephen Trimble explores this theme in his book Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America. He begins by examining in great detail the story of Earl Holding, who in 1997 was the 14th-largest landowner in the US. Holding, of course, did not purchase land simply for the sake of having and enjoying it for his personal use. He viewed land as a commodity, a product to be shaped and molded for profit. A shrewd businessman, Holding used his wealth and connections with other powerful players to maneuver a deal in which a vast amount of public land became his private property. Like a child who is told “no” by one parent only to plead with the other, Holding played all the angles until he finally got his way. Even Congress bent the rules for the multimillionaire, and Holding wound up owning the land that became the site for the downhill ski events of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah.

Trimble does a fine job of weaving an intriguing tale from a myriad of details. Bargaining for Eden often reads like a novel, filled with charming character portraits, even though some of the characters are less than charming. With an even hand, Trimble lays out the facts, and respectfully tells a story of people with values different from his, of opposing groups who can look at one piece of land and see two very different worlds of possibilities. As it combines local history with a smattering of firsthand accounts from long-time residents, Trimble’s style of journalism moves forward with the pacing of a soap opera, each chapter bringing forth new plot points and character quirks.

And while Trimble’s treatment of the Holding story fully illustrates the author’s point about the diminishing amount of public land and our relationship with wilderness, he eventually studies the theme from a personal perspective. In the final few chapters, Trimble looks within himself to examine the hypocrisy of his own actions after he purchases a tract of land in Utah. With a candid probing of his own thoughts and feelings, Trimble unearths his contradictory motives. As he struggles with the concept of building a new home there, he starts to see Holding in a new light. Clearly, Trimble’s effect on the land is not of Holding’s caliber; unlike Holding, Trimble cares deeply about the land, sometimes to hilarious extremes, such as when he admonishes his son for riding his bicycle on the dirt road for fear the boy might harm some plants there. But Trimble’s introspection raises an interesting argument – that it is almost impossible to love the land without also bringing it harm.

—Audrey Webb

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