Janalee Tobias, left, and Judy Feld revisit the wetland they failed to save, the subject of a new book; photo by Adam Finkle

Over the years, Janalee Tobias, a petite, chatty, Mormon housewife in suburban Salt Lake has earned a reputation as a relentless citizen activist, a label that many of her faith view with suspicion when applied to a woman. “I got into activism accidentally,” Tobias says. “I opened my mouth.”

A self-proclaimed conservative, the blonde mother of two fights for tax limitation, term limits and halting fluoridation of drinking water. A proud gun owner (featured in the December 2012 issue of Salt Lake magazine), Tobias argues feminists who oppose gun rights are irresponsible: “It sends a message that women are helpless.”

But Tobias’ zeal is always tempered by a genuineness and self-deprecating humor that has endeared her to activists on the right and left—though they roll their eyes when she says things like, “The best part about being a gun-rights activist is I know lots of people with big guns. Have you ever fired a Kalashnikov full auto? That’s fun.”

So it’s an irony that far-right firebrand Tobias will likely go down in Utah political history as a tree hugger for the nine-year crusade she led with fellow Mormon mom Judy Feld to preserve wild space. Few conservatives list environmentism as a core value. And a couple of willful women coming between a real estate developer and profit? That’s something associated with a Unitarian monkey wrencher, not a woman who teaches the ward’s 3-year-old Sunbeams. 

Tobias and Feld’s fight to save a marsh in South Jordan has been chronicled in a new novel, SLAPPED!, by the late Utah journalist Paul Swenson, a one-time editor of Utah Holiday magazine. In the late 1990s, Tobias and Feld organized opposition to a commercial development that would pave over wild habitat in the Jordan River bottoms. The two women rallied their neighbors, put pressure on local government and infuriated the development’s investors. They argued the targeted 110 acres of wetland—a refuge for egrets, Canada geese, red tailed hawks and deer—was more vital to suburbanites than more office space and chain restaurants.

“We believe it’s good for your soul to have open spaces in urban areas,” Tobias says. Though Swenson changed names in his book, it remains brutally accurate on one point: Tobias, Feld and their allies mostly failed—preserving only a 20-acre park. Today, you’ll see a chain barbeque, high-rise offices, a sushi cafe and shops where their beloved great blue herons once lurked.

Jordan River riparian habitat as activists had hoped to preserve it, photo by Anne-Marie Bernshaw.

“People who read the book say they hate the ending. They wanted us to win,” Tobias says. “It isn’t a fairy tale ending. We didn’t win, but that’s what makes the book real.”

Feld is a bit more philosophical: “Saving just the park was a win for us if only because the developers didn’t get it all.”

But Feld and Tobias paid dearly for their small victory. In 1998, Anderson Development Co. sued the environmentalists for $1.7 million, claiming they had interfered with Anderson’s contractual relations in buying property. The green-space activists called the action a “SLAPP” suit—Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation—meant to punish citizen opposition. Tobias says she alone was forced to spend $400,000 in legal fees. (One of Tobias’ pro-bono lawyers at the time was none other than Rocky Anderson who went on to become Salt Lake City mayor.)

What hurt most, Feld says, was to be attacked in court documents by members of her own church. Being a devout Mormon requires forgiving others, Feld says. “But I’m not at that point yet—I have not been able to forgive some of the people who are LDS. I struggle because they outright lied.”

Tobias says the crisscrossing Mormon ties made the legal battle emotionally wrenching. “It’s a story about how valuable nature is and how people will do anything for money–even if it means systematically destroying people you attend church with. Judy and I had to fight to keep that from jading our belief in our religion.”

In 2005, the suit made its way to the Utah Supreme Court where Anderson’s primary claims were denied along with the activists’ counterclaims of emotional damage. In the end, Anderson paid its exhausted opponents $50,000. Neither side admits liability. The women remain defiant.

“I earned my freedom of speech. I went through H-E-double toothpicks to speak out against abusive developers,” Tobias says.

Laura Hanson, director of the Jordan River Commission, which, she says, holds open space as a “pillar” of its vision, is pessimistic the women’s battle has increased awareness in preserving suburban open space, let alone wild areas. “Who knows? Maybe it will inspire the public to be more outspoken,” she says. “But [preserving green space] is tricky and so political and hard.” It’s worth noting South Jordan is not a member of the river commission.

The two women, themselves, question the value of their efforts. “I look back on the impact it had on my family and wonder, ‘How did we ever do that?’“ Feld says. “I could never take it on now.”

Tobias agrees, “If we had known the outcome, would we have ever started? I don’t think so. But I don’t want to ever keep my mouth shut when I see an injustice. You have to do something.”

Back>>>Read other stories in our March/April 2014 issue.