It is necessary and important, amidst my recounting of the effort to keep dams from being built in the Grand Canyon, to be introduced to John Saylor, U. S. Representative 1949-73, Republican from Pennsylvania. My own experience with Congressman Saylor was limited to 1966-8; his experience with defending our National Park System, and more generally America’s grand natural heritage, extended over a quarter-century of intense and significant environmental debate and change in public opinion and national policy.
A full account of Saylor’s life is provided in T. G. Smith’s Green Republican*. This biography, necessarily, presents a facet of the political history of a time, hard to imagine in this era, when government service was thought of as contributing to the building, widening, and strengthening of the American polity. Saylor, though rarely in the House majority, was as much or more concerned with building up America as he was in heading off wrong-headed policy directions.
What I want to do here, as context for Saylor’s part in protecting the Grand Canyon, is to use Professor Smith’s biography to help me summarize the congressman’s career, especially his activity in the early 1950’s Echo Park controversy and, more lightly, where necessary, his involvement in National Wilderness, Park, and reclamation policy. I try to be faithful to the material, but I am of course responsible for this recounting, which blends in my own research.
Smith freely labels Saylor as having a preservationist outlook, arising from an upbringing that included hunting and fishing, a visit to Yellowstone, family friendship with Gifford Pinchot, the influence of Theodore Roosevelt, a valuing of stewardship rather than dominion of America’s natural landscapes, a division between commercial and national objectives. In sum, it was a set of early 20th-century Republican, or maybe Progressive, values that Saylor grew up with and into, somehow elaborating themselves into the preservationist point-of-view as he became active in mid-century natural resource debates. His first committee assignment was to Public Lands, later to evolve into the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs.
Interestingly, defending his district’s economic base in coal-mining apparently did not interfere and may have strengthened his ideological opposition to large-scale federal hydroelectric projects. The conflicting choices continuously facing public officials in the West in making public land & resource policy were absent from western Pennsylvania.
Yet, with his district’s coal-mining base, he also was a champion of organized labor, a protectionist on trade, and a fiscal conservative. He came to support many government programs stemming from the New Deal and later initiatives, yet was wary of the expansion of the federal bureaucracy, expressed as one of his reasons for being so strong a critic of the Bureau of Reclamation. He was not loathe to cry out against the dangers of “socialism”, and early in his career, opposing large multi-purpose Reclamation dams, (one in Hells Canyon was his first target) was a natural stance.
His large stature, booming voice, and forceful personality were well suited to a man in opposition, forthright, blunt, prickly, independent, not a follower, but one who valued loyalty. He proved tireless in fighting his causes and therefore a fine ally for those not part of the congressional mainstream for commercial development no matter what. As a large, tall man, he was physically suited to dominate, or in the case of Reclamation, to confront the over-weening 1960’s Commissioner Floyd Dominy, described by Smith as hot tempered, hard drinking, profane, philandering, brash, blunt, bright, hardworking, and ambitious for himself and his bureau. They clashed early in their careers, 1952.
And the Grand Canyon came up early, too, although it was barely noticed that it featured in the so-called “Bridge Canyon Project” act sponsored by Arizona’s long-time congressman-turned-senator, Carl Hayden. I have elsewhere told the story of the early developers’ clashes over how to use the Grand Canyon’s “best” damsite, located near the small side canyon named Bridge near river mile 235. One scheme would have backed up water behind the dam to send it through a tunnel aimed at Phoenix and the fields of central Arizona. As it studied the possibilities more thoroughly in and right after World War II, the Bureau of Reclamation decided a better idea was to build the dam to generate electricity that could pump water out of the river downstream of Hoover dam, up over the mountains and on down into central Arizona. A big plus was that the power generated would be enough to pump the water and have a surplus for sale, thus helping to pay for the low-revenue irrigation waterworks.
Hayden steered the bill through the Senate. That is a story told elsewhere, including the ignorant role played by the Sierra Club and National Parks Association. So, although the National Park Service knew and had reported on the values of the affected area, the integrity of the Grand Canyon was not an issue in Congress in 1950.
What was at issue was California’s fear of losing any of the Colorado it had or wanted. Also troublesome, according to Smith, was Saylor’s instant questioning of the project: the need for a dam, the consequent promotion of a greater population, how little Arizona paid in taxes, Reclamation’s unreliable figures. The turning point, however, was the question of whether the water Arizona wanted to use was legally theirs and physically there. And it was Saylor who offered the (to Arizona) infamous motion to force the two states into the Supreme Court, from which Arizona v. California did not emerge until 1963.
Meanwhile, Saylor felt free to criticize and work for different policies from the new, Republican Eisenhower administration, although in the beginning there was harmony, as together they opposed a dam that would have threatened Glacier National Park. His stance there, and against taking timbered lands out of Olympic National Park indicated his underlying faith that the Park System was a worthwhile American institution, not to be destroyed for local or temporary gain. Moreover, he decried the lack of restraint on Reclamation activities, in spite of the administration’s rhetoric. Which, of course, brings us to the Colorado River Storage Project, proposed in 1950, to include ten multi-purpose dams.
The first stroke was in Interior, with NPS on side and the dam-builders on the other. Then-secretary Chapman first approved, then disapproved. Smith says that conservationist protest, generated because two of the dams would be inside Dinosaur National Monument, caused the reversal. Indeed, a powerful plea by park advocate Bernard DeVoto in a wide-circulation magazine, Saturday Evening Post, July 1950, was a call for national attention. In any case, the Korean War delayed the monster until 1953-4 when the Eisenhower administration approved it, since the electric components would be shared private and federal, and it was desired by the voters and politicians of the Colorado’s upper basin—who also may have expected reciprocity for their support of Eisenhower’s St Lawrence Seaway. With such flimsy justification, it was no wonder that Saylor became the biggest opponent of this economic extravagance of Reclamation and menace to the National Park System.
That second element was crucial. Dinosaur National Monument was both a place for fossils and a very large preserve of wild country, the canyons of the Yampa and Green Rivers. Though the fossils were safe, the canyons would be flooded, roaded, and industrialized by the construction of the dams and electric works in the Echo Park and Split Mountain projects. Designation as a unit of the National Park System would become meaningless, a temporary hold until someone came along witih a money-spinning commercial proposition. This was not a new issue. The Federal Power Act of the 1920’s had barred private dams in NPS units. The difference here is that Congress constitutionally had ultimate power to authorize a dam on any federal land; the CRSP proposal was a bold move by the boomers and promoters of unlimited development to show that the NPS was in fact no bar.
In September 1953, Saylor and Aspinall, as the two congressional point men, were provided with a two-day river trip by Joe Penfold of the Izaac Walton League. This was an indicator of one of the anti-dammers’ tools — get some people down there, show that the place is worth keeping and enjoying as it is. Saylor loved it. Aspinall remained committed to the CRSP, central to the economic future of his western Colorado district and the entire upper basin.
Shortly after that trip, Interior officials went, and endorsed Echo Park, with Split Mountain for later. At this point, a key element entered: the argument over evaporation loss. In the debates over the next few years, Reclamation would be shown up as misleading and inaccurate; it would be a serious blow to their arguments for Echo Park dam. To start Sec. McKay approved, and the House subcommittee on reclamation, Aspinall & Saylor both present, held hearings in Jan 1954. Saylor went after the key Interior witness embarrassing him on project knowledge and pressing him hard on NPS invasion, even attacking him after he left the witness table. When Reclamation officials appeared, Saylor continued his attacks on their competence, bolstered by discussions with conservation leaders he would continue to work with in years ahead: Zahnhiser, Wilderness Society, Brower, Sierra Club, Packard, National Parks Assoc.
Saylor used his trip experience to talk up the loss of scenery, and his dislike of multi-purpose (i.e., hydroelectric) dams. Aspinall was no help, not thinking the Yampa was any big deal. As always in these matters, the fine points were debated over whether a precedent was being set. (Angels dancing on the point of a pin, Im afraid. I well remember discovering long after it mattered that a New Mexico dam had violated a precedent that no one even mentioned at the time.) Saylor gloried in the sacks of mail he was receiving—53 for the dam, 4678 against. He had to endure criticism from other committee members, but Saylor replied he wanted to save the westerners from themselves. And of course, he was given glowing reviews by those trying to save Dinosaur.
In a significant moment, when the pro-NPS side testified, Brower unsettled the dam proponents with arguments about comparative evaporation losses. Beyond the committee room, experts were enlisted to work on the data. Films, magazine articles, newspaper stories, river trips, telegrams and letters, were all tools. Saylor used the Congressional Record. Eisenhower’s approval of the project brought only scorn from conservationists, complaining about the evaporation data and hidden subsidies due to Reclamation policies.
Inside the subcommittee debate, Saylor tried a variety of measures, but without gaining votes. Failing there, he sent a letter to all members of Congress refuting the pro-dam arguments. He also continued to push Reclamation on evaporation, and in April that paid off when the bureau revealed errors, which was then released to the press. The top Interior official involved resigned, in disgust and embarrassment. Still, the full committee kept Echo Park dam, 13-10 and reported the bill, 13-12. Saylor, angered, criticized his Republican colleagues for their high-handed, indifferent approach. In return, he was labelled as a friend of southern California in its attempt to keep all the Colorado’s water. Major newspapers and public figures came out against the dam. The anticipated battle on the House floor did not take place, however, since Speaker Martin refused to schedule the bill. And in the Senate, the measure, now larded with even more projects, was deferred until the next Congress.
Saylor was lauded and honored by the conservationists, and more immediately important, was endorsed widely for re-election and won comfortably.
Not so comfortable were the discussions among those trying to decide what stance to take in the coming year. This had become more complicated because Brower, among others, was realizing what a treasure Glen Canyon was, and that their argument that there could be a higher Glen Canyon dam instead of one at Echo Park entailed a big loss. But it was not in the Park System, and the concern was raised that Rainbow Bridge National Monument might be endangered. A division arose. Saylor opposed the whole bill; he was against Reclamation. His allies were ready to support the CRSP if Echo Park was deleted. In support of Dinosaur and the NPS, the flow of letters, lobbying, and anti-dam material continued as the Democrats took control of Congress.
In the minority, Saylor continued his attacks in House hearings. He now raised questions about the integrity of Glen Canyon dam. He helped convince conservationists to oppose the CRSP; otherwise Echo Park might get snuck back in during a House-Senate conference, the latter body having passed its big bill. Trying a new tack, Utah argued that evidence showed that the dam site pre-empted the monument. Saylor counter-attacked on the floor, scorned Echo Park dam’s recreation, and criticized Lake Mead and Hetch Hetchy dam. The subcommittee voted down Saylor’s deleting of Echo Park. Then, two days later, reversed itself, taking Echo Park out while setting up a panel of engineers to compare all damsites. This Aspinall maneuver failed in committee however, and the bill went to the floor without Echo Park in late June. Aspinall and California announced they would not support a conference reinstatement of the dam. Saylor continued to attack the whole project, and House leaders put off action until 1956.
Saylor’s leadership was invaluable; he supplied information, obtained data, inserted speeches, questioned witnesses, exposed Reclamation errors, and passionately defended NPS.
Tired of this perennial, upper basin senators pledged in November they would remove Echo Park from their 1956 bill. The Secretary of the Interior agreed, saying their plans were withdrawn. Close, conservationists insisted Dinosaur be protected and also Rainbow Bridge. Saylor continued his opposition, but the House voted the CRSP 256-136 March 1956. The conference quickly met then, deleted Echo Park, protected NPS from CRSP dams, especially Rainbow Bridge National Monument.
Over the next few years, the Wilderness bill would become a major subject for Saylor. He and Aspinall, now fixed for the years from 1959-73 in their respective leading positions on the Interior Committee would fight over it vigorously. However, they also observed the courtesies, Aspinall consulting and planning with Saylor on scheduling, membership, and staffing. They were both tough, bright and determined, and after dealing with matters in the committee, never lost a vote on the floor. They were publicly friendly, even though, Smith says, stubborn, petty, arrogant, tyrannical, and vindictive; they got their power, and wielded it. Good at staff relations in their way, that way was from 50 years before. They both believed they were disciples in the conservation church of Theodore Roosevelt, just in different chapels. They could pray together, while asking to be granted different outcomes.
They both respected Dominy as Reclamation Commissioner, and together the three went through strange maneuvers over protecting Rainbow Bridge. Dominy, trekked to the Bridge, and too wanted no dams. Conservationists, not unified, pushed for a protective dam. Congress wouldnt authorize it. Saylor did do a flyover, and thought a dam a good idea. The key player was one of the new men, Stewart Udall, to be Secretary of the Interior through most of the 1960’s. As a congressman, he visited the Bridge the hard way, and didnt want to build any “protective” dams, which would do more violence than the lake water. His report sparkled, as he rhapsodized about the area. He didnt mention the precedent (but as I mentioned, it had already been violated; just that nobody noticed.) Then as Secretary in early 1961, he led a big helicopter invasion, that recommended no protective dam, and an expansion of the boundaries (no Navajos were consulted). Brower and Saylor were on opposite sides, but Saylor did not want to act, either.
At this point, p 154, Smith says something outrageous: “Having won at Rainbow, the Bureau of Reclamation set in motion plans to build dams at Bridge and Marble canyons on the Colorado River that would endanger Grand Canyon National Monument. Saylor would be in the forefront of the battle to save the Grand Canyon”. The last sentence is true — the forefront of the battle had a lot of fine people working to save the Canyon. The first sentence is nonsense. The plans to build dams were decades old. The question had always been, who and how? Now the question would become “whether at all”. But the disposition at Rainbow had nothing to do with the great battle that would shape up in 1963-5 over the Grand Canyon. Oh, and of course, the Marble dam site is not only way above the Monument, it is upstream of the Park. Well, quibbile, quibble. In any case, Saylor’s role is worth a separate entry.
The rest of his nationally significant career on behalf of preservation is outside my area of interest, but I highly recommend Smith’s accountings, in all their detail, of the struggles that founded and shaped America’s environmental policies.
*Smith, Thomas G., Green Republican, John Saylor and the Preservation of America’s Wilderness, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006