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Know the West

Drain Lake Powell? Democracy and science finally come West


Note: this front-page essay introduces this issue's two feature stories: "A tale of two rivers: The desert empire and the mountain" and "Reclaiming a lost canyon."

The proposal to drain Lake Powell is exhilarating. Not because it is necessarily a good idea. That remains to be seen. The proposal is exhilarating because it means democracy and science, inseparable twins when it comes to natural resource issues, have penetrated the West.

The proposal is also evidence that David Brower's dismal dictum - that all environmental victories are temporary and all defeats permanent - need not be true. If the destruction of Glen Canyon by Lake Powell isn't permanent, then almost nothing is permanent.

Glen Canyon Dam was authorized and built a decade before the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. Because of the lack of laws, because of the politics of the Interior West, and because the federal government had more money than God, dams were thrown across an enormous number of streams in the West, whether or not they made economic or ecological or even common sense.

Those dams are a monument to the region's political leadership in the 1950s and 1960s, when men like former Colorado Rep. Wayne Aspinall, D, and his allies ruled the West like a theocracy. In their righteousness, they built dams, they tested nuclear weapons, they roaded and clear-cut the forests, and they generally ran the region in a thoughtless and destructive way.

The national and then regional reaction to what they did first made it impossible to build additional dams in the West. And now we are coming full circle, by beginning to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether the dams they built should remain standing. The examination of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell is especially exciting because, at Lake Powell, we are not just subjecting a dam to the light of current values, but are also showing how the West might be governed.

That puts a heavy burden on the environmental movement. The recent congressional hearing on draining Lake Powell, chaired by Utah Rep. Jim Hansen, R, was a throwback to the 1950s. The Western delegation acted as if it could blow away this idea, and offered no intelligent or constructive critique. The hearing showed that if there is to be a thoughtful weighing of the drain-Lake Powell proposal, it will have to come from within the environmental movement. For the moment, at least, environmentalists must present all sides of the debate, and must be sensitive to the values of everyone who has an interest in the lake and the dam. If the movement can't do that, it risks committing the same kind of narrow-minded, reckless acts that the 1950s-era politicians committed.

As a start toward such a debate, High Country News offers a lengthy essay by George Sibley on the 1922 Colorado River Compact and its manifestation in concrete - Glen Canyon Dam. Sibley, a writer in Gunnison, Colo., argues that there is more to Glen Canyon Dam than its impacts on Grand Canyon and the Sea of Cortez.

Also in this issue, assistant editor Greg Hanscom describes the people who brought the drain-Lake Powell effort to life.