Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Counterfactual: History Game-Playing


There are the what-if games played with history; there are the erroneous, even willful, interpretations. Byron Pearson's Saving Grand Canyon is fatally flawed as an academic history by the latter -- his failed book-long rant at environmentalists, and in particular the Sierra Club as the Grand Canyon's saviors.

Playing the what-if games, however, I have found an intriguing and educational antidote, since they permit an examination of the roles of various actors under conditions that did not quite prevail. For instance, it is a linch-pin of any solid understanding of the 1965-8 legislative history of the Colorado River Basin Act to understand the multi-diimensional influences that gave Washington's Democratic Senator Henry Jackson, Interior & Insular Affairs Committee Chairman (and there are a bunch of those influences in that titling) his central position in shaping the legislation. So, suppose we take out of the CRB legislation story Jackson's position and convictions and motivations and support. Suppose that there had been no central figure from the Northwest, Jackson or another. Suppose, that is, that the political balances in the Senate were much like those in the House, where Northwest Representatives were eloquent and determined, but of little impact on the Arizona-Colorado-California alliance that drove the process. 

So, without the political nexus centered on Jackson, but still supposing the fierce nation-wide opposition to the two Grand Canyon dams, would they have been authorized? Could that opposition, epitomized in the Sierra Club and its Executive Director, David Brower, have been able to marshal the nation's nascent environmental stirrings to block the hydro-electrification and drowning of the Grand Canyon?

For Pearson, the answer is easy: the dams would have been built. For me, I find that the alliance we, fighting for the Canyon, and the Northwest, fighting for control of its water resources, struck was such a major element right from the start that subtracting the latter's political clout leaves nothing but imponderables. That is, the elements of the story would have to be almost completely re-imagined. Without the Northwest, how would the Canyon's defenders have configured their strategy? Who would they have aimed at? What arguments and allies would have become salient?

Even in the late 1950's, as a result of the fight against the Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument, those protective of the Grand Canyon were alert to the threats from dams and determined to oppose them. Could their efforts in 1961-4 have laid the foundation for a successful campaign? With the Northwest a less potent factor, would the initiatives of Secretary Stewart Udall on, e.g., the Pacific Southwest Water Plan have played out differently? Would there have been a stronger reliance placed on the damage done to units of the National Park System? Or on the opposition by Representative John Saylor and other Republicans? Would other Northwesterners have combined their different political clout and alliances, and in coalition, taken the role that Jackson in fact played? Would pro-Park Senators have risen to this challenge? Could the controversy, simply by existing in that political climate, have stirred a greater reaction by figures in and around the Johnson administration? Was there, indeed, a stronger environmental concern to be stirred up in 1965-6?

As I say, imponderables. It is so much easier just to take the history as written, subtract out the Jackson factor, and see the anti-dam forces rolled over in the House, as they were (up to a point), and then the Senate as well, under the benign nod of the Johnson administration.

I can see a situation developing, not a stalemate as in the real 1966, but one where the Colorado Basin politicos chose to "compromise", and drop (temporarily of course) one of the dams, just authorizing the other as support for the water features of the Central Arizona Project. It requires a big re-shuffle of who would do what when, but the story of opposing Echo Park Dam would have been hanging over the reclamationists; they just might have sought to terminate the matter while Johnson was still President. Certainly, it is inconceivable that Udall would have put forth his pre-payment plan, even if the House had, as it did in history, stalled on final approval in the fall of 1966. Unless, in this re-configuration of anti-dam influences, even without the central figure of a Jackson, Udall, and Senator Hayden as well, would still have worried about time running out. Yet the Udall scheme only worked because the Senate power center of Jackson, Hayden, and New Mexico's Anderson embraced it. Without the Senate taking the initiative, House Interior powerhouse Aspinall could have used his control to scare Udall and the Arizonans into accepting his terms including at least one Grand Canyon dam.

And I must leave it there. Such forces that MIGHT have coalesced against both dams never had to come into play, because Henry Jackson did all the heavy lifting, accepting the anti-dam position argued for by the Sierra Club (and all the others across the nation). Whether, as I have speculated elsewhere, Jackson would have killed both dams had there been no anti-dam campaign to make the issue so hot, I still think unlikely. It would have been too easy for the Arizonans to have justified one of the dams for the Central Arizona Project, while completely neutering its potential to threaten the Northwest's Columbia River. And in that case, old-style Reclamation policy would have continued on, and who knows, maybe have stalled, hampered, curdled, the environmental forces that, in the true history, were unleashed by the Sierra Club+ campaign to Save The Grand Canyon.

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