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Exploration of the landscapes of Utah

Editor's note: The following is a summary of exploration by Hannah Gomez, a fifth-year landscape architecture student who was named the recipient of the 2018 Veronica Burns Lucas Travel Award in Landscape Architecture.

The scholarship, which is named after the late Veronica Burns Lucas, was established in 1999 to support students in their investigation into a recent design project that requires exploration outside of a traditional studio setting. Burns Lucas, a beloved member of the department before her passing, believed traveling and learning about other cultures were essential for landscape architects to develop the worldly insight needed in the profession.

Here, Gomez reflects on the time she spent in Utah during the summer of 2018. 

Peering out the oval airplane window, I gazed down at the landscape stretching out below me. The state of Utah, expansive and rugged and speckled like a kaleidoscope of colors, was unlike any land I’d flown over before. I was traveling to the Las Vegas airport where I had rented a car and I was about to drive northwest on an expansive loop into Utah’s center.

The previous fall, I worked on an essay that examined the ways that historically important landscapes in the United States have undergone a cycle of disregard, destruction, eventual realization, and attempted reclamation. Sometimes, like in the case of Fresh Kills Park, reclamation is possible – the coast once piled with mountains of trash has been buried in clean soil and lushly replanted. In other cases, reclamation is harder. Hetch Hetchy valley, comparably beautiful and neighbor to the world-famous Yosemite, was dammed and flooded in 1938, supplying drinking water and hydropower to surrounding residents. Despite all of the talk of draining the valley and allowing for its natural beauty to return, no steps toward reclamation have been taken.

Bears Ears and Grand Escalante are recently created National Monuments in the state of Utah. The current administration has reduced the size of both monuments, passing the formerly protected land off to the Bureau of Land Management, which has opened the land to mining claims. Uranium mining drastically changes a landscape – an action from which there’s no easy return.

With help from the Veronica Burns Lucas Travel Award I’d been granted in the spring of 2018, I was traveling around Utah to see these landscapes for myself. On the way to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, I visited seven national parks, two state parks, and two national monuments. From the 13-day trip, I gained a much fuller understanding of the Utah landscape – vast and varied and magnificent. Yet, as I drove along highways and through cities, I also gained a better perspective of what land our nation deems valuable and what land is considered less so, along with whose voices are heard and whose aren’t when decisions are made. 

I’d hoped that the trip would give me clear answers, but on the return flight home I carried back more questions than I’d had when I arrived. Yet, I have no doubt that the trip has strengthened me as a landscape architect, opening my eyes to history and forces that shape our landscapes that are not always easy to see. I am grateful for this experience and look forward to further exploring and contemplating the breathtaking landscapes of Utah.

Hannah Gomez at Bryce Canyon.
A view of the Grand Escalante.