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Outdoor writer "speaks for the trees"

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BY HANNAH J. RYAN
On Tom Wharton’s desk there are four books with subjects defining this writer’s life.
The first, “Blue Highways: A Journey into America” by William Least HeatMoon, is a story of a journey on American’s back roads, those drawn on maps in blue ink.
“I don’t like freeways,” Wharton said.
Always seeking a side road, Wharton is well acquainted with his native Utah’s rural highways. In 1970, his first position for The Salt Lake Tribune covering small town athletics had him driving the state’s secluded byways to reach his stories.
“I’d always thought I’d do the sports thing,” Wharton said.
Yet, when the Tribune’s long-time outdoors writer, Don Brooks, retired, Wharton “did the career switch.”
As an outdoor/natural resource reporter for The Tribune, Wharton said he is especially proud of a yearlong series of his that ran in 1991. This sequence of articles was called “The Year of the Great Salt Lake.” These articles profiled numerous aspects of the lake and the surrounding area, showing the values and threats to the recreation, mineral extraction, wildlife habitat and other natural aspects found there. The series was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
“(The Great Salt Lake) is a dynamic place that could disappear,” Wharton said. Every few years he drives the circumference of the lake, just to enjoy the open quietness and allow the thoughts to wander, he said.
“It’s nice to know there are still empty spaces in the craziness of the world,” Wharton said.
The same year Wharton started writing for The Tribune, he enlisted in Utah’s National Guard. Reece Stein was Wharton’s commanding officer in the guard’s public affairs unit.
“Tom was a heck of a soldier and a good public affairs person,” Stein said.
Wharton wrote for The Tribune throughout his nearly 22 years in the guard. He put his civilian job on hold numerous times when his unit was sent abroad to South Korea, West Germany and Central America. There he covered the guard during war games and other training operations.
Stein recalled a story Wharton did on a soldier they had met in a lunchroom in South Korea. This soldier was also from Utah and at the time was guarding the demilitarized zone.
Wharton profiled this soldier, looking into his experiences on the frontlines with North Korea.
“Tom had one foot in the guard and one in the newspaper business,” Stein said. “He brought an unprecedented amount of coverage to the Utah Guard.”
A world away from the humid combat zones of Asia, Wharton retired from the guard in 1991 and continued his career centered amidst the natural wonders of red sandstone arches and canyons.
Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” and Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” also reside on Wharton’s desk. The passion of these legendary outdoor writers is similar to Wharton’s dedication and understanding of Utah’s outside character.
Also an author and contributor to numerous guide books, Wharton works — as Abbey and Leopold did — to instill in people a love and respect for the high desert. Assignments have found Wharton climbing the state’s highest peaks, profiling its 200 campgrounds, and interpreting its geological, recreational and human history.
Getting kids outside early on is something Wharton highly believes in. His own kids were placed in backpacks and packed around Utah in their first few months of life.
Wharton said his late wife, Gayen, understood the benefits and importance of educating kids through nature. Gayen made an outdoor classroom for her students and “found that students who were knuckleheads in the classroom thrived outdoors.”
“There’s book learning and life-experience learning,” Wharton said.
Perseverance, he said, is a lesson impressed upon a person when they backpack 10 miles, are swarmed with mosquitos and wait out a lighting storm in a tent.
At an early age Brett Prettyman began reading Wharton’s articles in The Tribune and persevered in his dream to learn the craft in Wharton’s footsteps.
Today Prettyman sits next to Wharton in The Tribune’s newsroom and alternates with him writing weekly outdoor columns. Prettyman was involved in editing Wharton’s series on the Great Salt Lake.
“Watching Tom put that series together was pretty amazing,” Prettyman said. “My part when deciding what made it or didn’t make it into the series was difficult, after seeing what the writing process took.”
In addition to influencing Prettyman, three of Wharton’s four children graduated from the University of Utah with communication degrees.
His daughter, Emma, studied education and social work and is currently the executive director of Grand Canyon Youth, an organization that takes at-risk youth on river and canyon trips through the southwest.
“Emma is continuing (Tom’s) voice and his legacy in outdoor education,” Prettyman said.
Speaking of a voice for the environment, the last book found on Wharton’s desk is “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss. This picture book details the consequences of not taking care of the environment. In this story there is creature called the Lorax who says that he “speaks for the trees, as the trees have no tongues.” More than just his look-alike, Wharton’s writing and life work spreads the same message as the Lorax, for he “speaks for the trees.”♦
—Brought up wandering in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, Hannah J. Ryan continues to feed her curiosities by pursuing bachelor degrees in journalism and Spanish. She is the spring semester intern at OWAA headquarters. Contact her at hannahryan@owaa.org.

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