Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dams: 1949, NPS Thinks about Bridge, Again

Dams: NPS 1949 Thoughts on Bridge

In a 4 May 1949 report, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. formulated for NPS Director Drury what he must have thought of as a fundamental view about Bridge and the Park, seeing a kind of contract. Olmsted, born in 1870, was dedicated to the Park System ideal, involved in its creation, and putatively as knowledgable as any Park supporter of the ups and downs of Grand Canyon Natonal Park. He was used heavily by Drury to provide guidance in the 1940's as pressure from Reclamation mounted for an ever higher Bridge Canyon dam. He jousted over Bridge's impacts in 1949 with Bestor Robinson as the latter formulated the position of expedience, whereby the Sierra Club could accept the dam as inevitable. These two could be considered together, and perhaps I will do that in the future, as exemplars of different rhetorics in how to be reasonable in the defense of wild & natural America, and end up promoting unreasonable loss.

In his report, Olmsted first offered a founding myth: Powell focussed attention on the Canyon. Then there came a growing stream of scientists and tourists. Niagara Falls was made a state park to protect against commercial exploitation. So in 1908, with Grand Canyon National Monument, the government decided to reserve one particular stretch of Grand Canyon as most outstandingly important, so that this one supremely significant stretch would be held inviolate against the advancing tide of economic exploitation. "That 1908 decision was made, and the Government assumed that unconditional obligation to protect and preserve the peculiar combination of natural conditions of that selected portion of the Grand Canyon for the purpose indicated, unimpaired by any subordination of that purpose to considerations of commercial profit or economic gain, with a clear understanding that this was likely to involve foregoing otherwise possible economic gains of large though as yet unmeasured magnitude, as for example from future developments of water-power when economically feasible."

So far, Olmsted continued, the government has not violated that obligation. He then digressed to defend concessions in Parks to service tourists: Yes, they expected profit. Yes, in some cases they were mistakes. But overall, they contributed to the "enduring enjoyment of natural characteristics; not yet knowingly and deliberately subordinating natural (objects) to economic gain". The temptation now exists to sacrifice such an object for a large gain. Are the people and the government ready to repudiate their obligation? And if they are, A: should the Park boundaries be revised, or B:  should the dam be let into the Park without a limit on the length of its reservoir? Course A would be a "technical repudiation" but "minor, relatively insignificant". B would be a "fundamentally contradictory" course, the first in a step-by-step deterioration. "The only way to avoid progressive deterioration is uncompromising adherence to the idea of excluding impairing uses." 

Olmsted opined it was highly improbable that Congress would adhere to the 1772' elevation for Bridge that would keep the reservoir out of the Park. He suggested the limit be where the Canyon is broadening out, above about 1887'-1915'.  

Thus are ringing words used, not to stir allied warriors into battle, but to avoid the effort of resistance. Yes, NPS is a government agency, subject to the orders of its superiors in the Interior hierarchy. But no, government here is not a closed system where information inimical to a decision should be kept from the public in the service of keeping that hierarchy tidy and complacent. Anyway, Olmsted was not an NPS employee. Worse, why would he not see that his Course A equalled his Course B? To exclude an "impairing use" from a Park by a "technical" boundary revision leads just as much to step-by-step deterioration as allowing such a use within the boundary. But of course, what really upsets me goes back to his "history", in which he allows "one supremely significant stretch" of the Canyon to be protected while the rest can be pillaged. Employees like McKee, though they only circulated reports internally, at least saw the values of the entire Canyon. When supportive outsiders like Olmsted did not  make public their views, that both enabled, while not exposing the views of, such as Bestor Robinson who, the greater sin, subverted the very purposes of the Club he headed.

I suppose it is wrong to be overly harsh. It would take the successful battle to keep a dam out of Dinosaur NM, the too-late discovery of Glen Canyon as it was drowned, the growing understanding that economic and population growth was a flawed good, and the huge increase in people's experiencing the Canyon, before advocates were ready, 15 years later, to defend all of it. 

At the end of that summer, Southwest Regional Director Tillotson, one of the strong advocates in NPS for not fighting Reclamation over the dam's height, went to its regional directors' get-together in Las Vegas, and was impressed by the big signs that welcomed the public in. He then went on a trip to the Bridge site with Director Straus and other Reclamation staff. Since all their plans showed a height of 1877', I asked why they worry us to death with legislation that calls for a dam "not less than 1877'". Straus that if we did not have that to worry about, it would be something else. Larson, of the local office, said above 1877' was infeasible and "not less than" could be omitted. Straus did not object.

Meanwhile, joining the Bridge trip, NPS' Ben Thompson came from spending time in Havasu Canyon, and then flying over the Park stretch the reservoir would invade. On his commercial flight (TWA) from the Canyon to Las Vegas, he saw it went right over the least attractive site. Below Kanab is sheer-walled, and above is worse. Even 1877' would mess up a trip for anyone going to the junction of Havasu and the Colorado. (Tillotson, true to his stand, queried, "Who does?".) Thompson then cited the elements of a living stream that would be lost: the sound in the rapids, the currents, variations in width, meanderings around obstacles, the natural fringes of vegetation, He mentioned the variations in the banks: cliffs, talus, sand flats, islands. There were the changes characteristic of high to low flows, and the active river as the agent in cutting and forming. With a reservoir, there would be no sound, no motion, [what about that wind, friend?]; meanders and variations submerged, fringes drowned. All on the boat trip to Bridge were tremendously impressed by spectacular views. Thompson heard Straus say he did not know about legislative language, so Thompson suggested NPS should raise the question again. As I recounted in the Sep 28th post, that was done, and the 1951 language said "not more than".

So there: the range from principled argumentation to elegiac description; from the need to get along, to the wistful desire to make one more attempt. Issue activism is hard; words are not enough.

Source: NPS archives, L7423 file, Bridge Canyon dam, 1938-54, 1948-54

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