Looming Line 3 Battle

Only a small percentage of Americans visit the Grand Canyon, but its existence, as an ancient place of inestimable value, has a global psychological importance.Photograph by Jim Kidd / Alamy

The Line 3 story started for us last month, and continues today, with another essay by Bill McKibben, this time using the Grand Canyon for context:

Lessons from the Fight for the Grand Canyon

We once saved natural landmarks for their beauty—now it’s for survival, too.

To float down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is to meander through geologic time. As you descend, the formations you pass include the Coconino Sandstone, the Redwall Limestone, the Bright Angel Shale—by the time you reach the tortured-looking Vishnu Schist, you’re a couple billion years back in time. But, even amid the towering mesas and buttes, one of the sights that moved me the most was a pile of gravel about twenty feet high and dating back not much more than fifty years. We pulled the raft to the river bank, anchored it to a tree, and climbed up above the tailings, entering the cool, dry hole from where they had come. This tunnel—perhaps seven feet high and five feet wide—had been bored in the nineteen-sixties, when the federal government planned to build a big dam and back the waters of the Colorado up in a reservoir that would have drowned the bottom of the canyon.

That never happened. And the primary reason it never happened is that David Brower, the executive director of the Sierra Club, decided to fight the plan, and to do it in a way that environmentalists hadn’t managed before. Brower—one of the great conservationists of the second half of the twentieth century—knew that the federal Bureau of Reclamation and its massive dams were immensely popular with politicians in the West. The dams provided the water and the electricity that turned the deserts of the Southwest into powerhouses of suburban growth, including in Las Vegas, where Frank Sinatra was in residence at the Copa Room at the Sands. To Brower’s great regret, the creation of the Glen Canyon Dam, upstream, was already filling Lake Powell; it seemed a reasonable bet that the bottom of the Grand Canyon, too, would soon be underwater.

Instead, Brower waged a remarkable campaign. The coffee-table books that the Sierra Club had been publishing, at his insistence, since 1960, with photos by Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and others, had helped muster popular support for wilderness preservation. (“Time and the River Flowing” was many people’s introduction to the splendor of the Grand Canyon.) Brower took out ads in newspapers, with copy by the great public-interest ad man Jerry Mander. Government officials had argued that flooding the Grand Canyon would make it easier for more Americans to access it; in return, Brower and Mander asked, in very large type, “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?” As John McPhee memorably recounted in these pages, the public responded in huge numbers; the dam plan became politically toxic; the Colorado still flows. (That there are dams throughout the Colorado River basin doesn’t keep it from being a very wild river—flash floods claimed a rafter’s life just last week.)

Sixty years after Brower’s win, the National Park Service deserves huge credit for carefully managing the canyon-bottom wilderness that the Sierra Club campaign saved. Every party that starts down the river receives orientation sessions that outline strict preservation rules; the campgrounds, without rangers or signs, remain pristine; the past, including the holes from the thwarted dam excavation, are simply left for intrepid travellers to stumble across and explore…

Read the whole essay here.

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