If you’ve read Ed Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang (of course you have) you’ll remember Seldom Seen Smith as one of the gang, a river guide turned saboteur, despondent over the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and the despoiling the wild and free Colorado River. Smith was based on Ken Sleight, a conservative kid from Idaho who moved south and eventually became an environmentalist firebrand and a river guide, building his life around the Colorado and agitating for the removal of the dam and the restoration of Glen Canyon.
For decades Sleight kept careful records of his experiences as a desert rat environmentalist at his ranch outside of Moab. Much of that ranch burned earlier this month in the Pack Creek Fire. Sleight had a hut that he used as a workshop, office, and archive, in which he kept boxes upon boxes of correspondence with his fellow rabble rousers, documents from his conservation battles, even participant lists from his days as a backcountry river guide. He considered himself an amateur historian and hoped to compile a book and eventually donate the material to a university for preservation. But now, it’s gone.
Zak Podmore of the Salt Lake Tribune covered the fire last week and Sleight’s loss. The first section of the resulting article is republished below with Podmore and the SLT’s permission. You can read the full article here, if you’re a subscriber to the SLT. -Ed.
Ken Sleight — who guided rafts through Glen Canyon before the dam, helped reshape San Juan County politics, and inspired Seldom Seen Smith in The Monkey Wrench Gang — lost an extensive personal archive in the Pack Creek Fire. https://t.co/5EeJ8vasSG
— Zak 🦦 Podmore (@zak_podmore) June 16, 2021
There are many titles that could accurately describe Ken Sleight’s life and work over the past 91 years: environmental activist, legendary river guide, political organizer, and close friend to the writer Edward Abbey. But he has also consistently and quietly played another role: historian.
For over three quarters of a century, Sleight kept careful archives documenting his transformation from a young, conservative tire salesman in northern Utah (a veteran of the Korean War who once attended John Birch Society meetings) to an environmental firebrand who fought relentlessly against nuclear waste dumps in San Juan County, the clearing of old growth piñon-juniper forests and — most famously — for the removal of the Glen Canyon Dam.
Sleight’s activism and upbringing in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided the inspiration for the “Jack Mormon” character of Seldom Seen Smith in “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” Abbey’s 1975 comic novel of eco-sabatoge.
Outside his home at Pack Creek Ranch south of Moab, Sleight had a large, two-story Quonset hut where he kept his office, workshop and around 100 boxes of archived material, including decades of correspondence, participant lists for the countless backcountry trips he guided, and documents related to numerous environmental battles.
“I had oodles and oodles and oodles of records,” Sleight said in an interview at his home on Monday. “It was all in one place, the records, everything.”
The entire contents of the building burned last week as the Pack Creek Fire swept up an irrigation ditch at the ranch before spreading high into the La Sal Mountains. “All those memories,” he said, “went up in smoke.”