Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Dam That Isn't There - The Story Behind Saving Dinosaur National Monument




This rocky bench at Jones Hole has its own alternate history. If the Bureau of Reclamation had been permitted to fulfill its schemes, the mouth of Jones Hole Canyon would have been submerged under twenty feet of water and silt, held back by a 118-foot tall dam the engineers wanted to build at the entrance to Split Mountain Canyon. The dam would have flooded Island Park, Rainbow Park and every inch of Whirlpool Canyon all the way up to the footings of the Echo Park Dam. The canyons of Dinosaur would have become two giant holding tanks. That's where David Brower steps in to change the course of history.

These days the Bureau of Reclamation is a broken and dysfunctional agency, a mere outlier in the vast labyrinth of the Department of the Interior. But back in its heyday of the 1940s and 1950s, the Bureau was a titanic force, perhaps the most powerful government agency in the Western States. It was the epicenter of the dam-industrial complex: promising cheap hydropower, irrigation, drinking water for expanding cities, water playgrounds, and industrial jobs. Exploiting Cold War anxieties, the Bureau presented itself as internal bulwark against the Communist Peril-even though most American Communists, such as Woody Guthrie, applauded its plan to dam nearly every Western river. In fact, the Bureau of Reclamation is the most Stalinist of federal agencies, cleaving closely to the masterplan of Old Joe who dictated to Soviet dam-builders: "No river should ever reach the sea."

The Bureau's leaders, men like Mike Strauss and the infamous Floyd Dominy, were as arrogant as defense contractors in the early days of the Iraq war. Everything was going their way. They steamrolled internal opposition, like that offered by Park Service chief Newton Drury, vilified conservationists as starry-eyed patsies and intimidated members of Congress who had the temerity to question any of the outrageously priced line items in their budget requests.

The Bureau drilled a tunnel through Rocky Mountain National Park for the Big Thompson water diversion. They built a dam across the Snake River in Jackson Hole National Monument at Grand Teton. They had no qualms about proposing dams in Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. They didn't have the slightest clue that they were about to be coldcocked over their plans for two dams in a remote national monument that almost no one, including the leadership of the Sierra Club, had ever heard of, never mind visited.

The year 1946 was a fateful one for the rivers and canyons of the Colorado Plateau. FDR was dead. His Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, who wanted to designate most of the canyon country of Utah as a huge national park larger than Yellowstone, had been rudely dismissed from office by Harry Truman. The world war was over, the Cold War heating up.

Enter Mike Strauss, the new head of the Bureau of Reclamation. Unlike the previous commissioners, Strauss was a deal-making politician, not an engineer. Under Strauss's direction, the Bureau published its document of doom, a study titled The Colorado River: A Natural Menace Becomes a Natural Resource. The book was nothing less than a death warrant for the Green, Colorado and San Juan rivers. It targeted 136 potential dam sites and envisioned a dam project or water diversion scheme in nearly every canyon and tributary on the Colorado Plateau. Central to the plan were four big main-stem dams: Flaming Gorge, Glen Canyon, Bridge Canyon on the western flank of Grand Canyon National Park and at Echo Park, where the Yampa River meets the Green in the heart of Dinosaur National Monument.


In theory, another 1.5 million acre feet was supposed to flow to Mexico. Of course, the Colorado River no longer flows to Mexico. But the Mexicans did inherit a toxic delta of pesticide-laden sludge.


With the compact signed, the Bureau of Reclamation was primed to roll. They swiftly unveiled their plans for three large upper basin dams: Glen Canyon, Echo Park and Flaming Gorge, followed by smaller dams on the Gunnison River, the San Juan and at Split Mountain in Dinosaur.

Deviously, the Bureau had anticipated that the centerpiece of their scheme, the Echo Park Dam, might generate a modest amount of public outcry because it would flood more than 100 miles of canyon inside a national monument. They had an ace up their sleeve that almost no one knew about it. In 1943, the Bureau of Reclamation had signed a secret agreement with Park Service Director Newton Drury called a "reclamation withdrawal." Essentially, the Park Service had already ceded the dam site to the Bureau of Reclamation. The deal was so covert that the park manager at Dinosaur, Dan Beard, knew nothing about it and when he protested to his superiors about unauthorized incursions into the monument by Bureau of Reclamation engineers in 1948, he was ordered to stand aside. "We see no advantage to be gained now in questioning the legality of the withdrawal," wrote Arthur Demaray, assistant director of the Park Service. "To do so would be extremely embarrassing to the Department."


Meanwhile, Stegner went to work on a book that would become a classic text in the history of environmental politics. Published by Alfred Knopf, a staunch opponent of the dam, This is Dinosaur: The Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers contained eight essays, all keenly edited by Stegner, and a gallery of evocative photos of the monument. The book was hand delivered to every member of congress and nearly every newspaper editor in the country.

"This is Dinosaur" may have been the most potent American political pamphlet since Tom Paine's Common Sense. Wayne Aspinall, the flinty congressman from western Colorado who served as a political overlord for the Bureau of Reclamation, said he knew his dream of a dam at Echo Park was shattered the moment the book hit his desk.


As astounding as their triumph over the Bureau of Reclamation was, it is now clear that the conservationists didn't save the wildness of Dinosaur by preventing it from being flooded by two big dams, for a simple reason: the dam that they consented to at Flaming Gorge continues to inflict terrible ecological damage downstream, robbing the canyons of some essential chords of life. Even today, Dinosaur is being starved of sandbars, starved of organic debris, starved of driftwood piles and spring floods, starved of willows and cottonwoods, razorback suckers and bony chubs. Starved of its unpredictability, its temporality, in a word its naturalness. Through most of its course in these glorious canyons the Green is a mechanized river, cold as a machine.

The fallout from the operations of Glen Canyon Dam have proven even worse. Not only did the giant cenotaph drown the most magnificent canyon on the continent, but it mauled the ecology of the Grand Canyon, as well. The hard lesson is that dams kill in both directions.

Still Brower's accomplishment here can't be discounted. He stopped a dam and built a powerful new movement, a movement that beat back dams in Grand Canyon National Park in the 1960s and enacted the signature environmental laws of our time: the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Even crusty Wayne Aspinall realized that the battle of Echo Park had shifted the dynamics of political power in the West. "If we let them knock out Echo Park," Aspinall warned. "We give them a tool they'll use for the 100 years." By the congressman's math, that means we've got fifty more years to bust a couple big dams. You know the ones. Time to get to work.

Here is the full article along with other links to similar essays written by the author.