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Know the West

Farewell, Marc Reisner


In 1995, when we first asked Marc Reisner to write an article for High Country News, we didn't know what to expect (HCN, 3/20/95: The fight for reclamation). Would the man who had changed how America thought about dams and reservoirs accept suggestions from an editor of a small paper in a small town in western Colorado?

We need not have worried. Reisner may have written Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water, and thereby shown that his pen was more powerful than the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Western congressional delegation. But when we told him his first draft needed changes, he rewrote immediately, without complaint. He was a professional and a craftsman, but he was more than that, and it showed in his life after Cadillac Desert.

With its publication in 1986, Marc could have spent his professional life repeating the themes of federal waste, environmental destruction, and inhuman treatment of Indians. He had brought those subjects to life, and educated tens of millions of people.

But however much he may have loved rivers, Marc Reisner was incapable of drifting, either professionally or with the prevailing ideological current. When some rice farmers in California convinced him that they could create migratory bird habitat, he became their public ally (HCN, 10/27/97: Deconstructing the age of dams). If it would help the birds, Marc was willing to modify the party line that he himself had helped create about growing rice in an arid climate.

Very few people work as freelance writers, because it is such hard work. Marc made his living that way, not because he was a masochist, but because - and I'm guessing here - he would not make what he saw as a larger sacrifice. He would not subject himself to the bureaucracy and the ideological constraints of working for any of the outfits that would have loved to have him. He would serve on boards, he would be a visiting professor, he would raise money to save wildlife, but he wouldn't join a staff.

So to remain independent, he hustled to earn a living while saving fish and creating bird habitat. When cancer struck, and he decided that in addition to doing good, family obligations required him to also do well, he entered water marketing in the frank hope of making a lot of money while advancing conservation. I'm sure he knew what some of his fellow environmentalists would say. And he may even have cared. But not enough to stop him from doing what he had decided he should do.

Marc Reisner was 51 when he died. His death is a terrible loss, because he was that most valuable of beings: a person who thought for himself and followed his own counsel. And, thereby, he acted as a leader for many of us.

We send our condolences to his wife, Lawrie Mott, who is a biochemist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and his two daughters, Ruthie and Margot.