West braces for Big Buildup II

  • COAL-FIRED: The Navajo Generating Station in Page,Arizona, near the Four Corners

    Tom Brownold

In the boom times of the 1950s, Western city leaders embarked on the Big Buildup. It was an intensive resource-development campaign that wrote a critical part of the story of the modern West across the grand tableau of the Colorado Plateau - the Four Corners area, the high redrock desert, the canyon country, including the Grand Canyon.

Now, with the Bush administration seemingly bent on replicating the excesses of the past, it is a good time to take a clear-eyed look at history.

At the end of World War II, the American Southwest remained a backwater. Only Los Angeles was a serious city. Denver and San Diego were small ones. The whole Phoenix metropolitan area had about 250,000 souls, Salt Lake City just 175,000. Las Vegas, a place not even included in the census until 1950, had 45,000 people. The West had no major-league team in any sport.

The fathers of industry saw vividly the glittering opportunity: the chance to grow, to make the big strike. With public subsidies in hand, they initiated on the most prodigious peacetime exercise of industrial might in the history of the world - the Big Buildup. Looking back, we can understand their thinking. The seats of power were in faraway D.C. and Wall Street. There was no interstate highway system, no commercial jet service, no Internet. So the boomers decided to reel the country in, to lure the people and the businesses, and the influence, West.

The Big Buildup worked. Now, just a finger-snap in time later, we can count in the Southwest four megalopoli: Southern California, the Valley of the Sun, the Wasatch Front and the Colorado Front Range. At the end of the war, the population of the Southwest stood at 8 million. Now it has hit 34 million. To accomplish this, the civic leaders already had two of four key ingredients: sun for gracious living and open land for industrial and residential development. Much more problematic was obtaining the water and electricity needed to fuel a boom. The cities had all exhausted their local water supplies. No one was willing to build coal-fired power plants near the new population centers.

All eyes turned toward the remote country of the Colorado Plateau.

Tapping the natural wealth

The first task was taming the Colorado River, which cuts down through the heart of the Plateau. In the early days of the Big Buildup, developers targeted the Grand Canyon, which could store the most water for subdivisions and create the best head for hydroelectricity. Had it not been for David Brower's one-man crusade in the 1960s, America's most glorious cleft would now be flooded behind a concrete dam.

Higher in the watershed, Dinosaur National Park also escaped. But four truly massive dam-and-reservoir projects, and many smaller ones, went in. The largest is 90-story-tall Glen Canyon Dam, with its 200-mile reservoir, which could stretch from New York City to Boston. The water projects of the Big Buildup remade the Colorado River, taking the wild out of its flows and forcing the native fish species onto the endangered and threatened species list.

The developers also coveted the Colorado Plateau's minerals. They had carte blanche access to the coal, oil, gas and uranium: Most of the Plateau is federal or Indian land, and a development-oriented Interior Department controlled both. By 1975, 14 coal-fired power plants and even more open-pit mines had gone in. Numerous oil and gas fields opened up. Charlie Steen's find in 1952 near Moab, Utah, ignited an unparalleled uranium rush.

Mining has laid down heavy tracks across the canyon country. Open-pit coal operations move an incomprehensible amount of earth - at every mine, each of the pits is canyon-sized, commonly a mile long, nearly that wide, and 200 feet deep or more. The coal plants demand large amounts of water from already-stressed Western streams. Their emissions harm human health, create acid rain and snow, and blur Southwestern vistas, reducing once 200-mile panoramas to 60 miles or less.

The uranium boom left us the plague of radioactivity. Cancer created by the poisonous dust killed hundreds of uranium miners, most of them Navajo. The Atlas Mill near Moab, which received uranium ore from 300 mines, has piles of radioactive waste that leak 110,000 gallons of polluted water into the Colorado River every day. New Mexico has four piles even larger.

The Big Buildup exacted other human costs. Hispanic villages were flooded out by Navajo Reservoir in northern New Mexico. Indian tribes, who had to endure the mining of sacred lands, were cheated by below-market mineral leases.

Changing values

The Big Buildup finally ran out of steam in the 1970s, as public opinion turned against it. A radical scheme to improve the mining of deep oil and gas deposits by detonating underground nuclear explosions larger than the Hiroshima blasts died on the vine. The most wild-eyed reservoir project of all, so-called Junction Lake, which would have inundated Moab, part of Canyonlands National Park, and 300 miles of the Colorado and Green rivers, collapsed of its own weight.

And finally, a coalition of environmentalists and traditional Indian people helped block the most extravagant coal development scheme. Designed for broad, lonely Kaiparowits Plateau (later to become the centerpiece of the spectacular Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument), this mine and power plant complex would have required a company town of 15,000 people in the heart of that wild country (HCN, 7/25/94: Mega coal mine proposed again in Utah).

The Big Buildup made livable large swaths of the hot, dry Southwestern terrain. It brought electricity and water to businesses, schools and hospitals. But it went too far and it cost too much. We never paused to ask the basic questions: What will be the effects on human health? On dispossessed peoples? Do we have conservation programs that could obviate the need for extraction? Are we considering all sources of energy?

Those same questions must now be asked again as the Bush administration pushes a full-bore, old-style energy initiative. Officials rhapsodize about strip-mining and drilling while giving reluctant and cosmetic attention to conservation and urging 30 to 40 percent budget cuts in programs for conservation and renewable resources. Vice President Cheney's recent estimate of a need for 1,300 to 1,900 new power plants offers yet more proof that the current agenda is even more aggressively anti-environmental than the Reagan-Watt program.

The Colorado Plateau will be a prime target in a massive extraction campaign - a Big Buildup II. But it can't happen without a fight. Once scornful of the high desert, the public is now fiercely protective of the wild redrock canyons, broad mesas and long vistas that expand the reach of our minds and souls, as well as our eyes. The Colorado Plateau holds, after all, the single greatest concentration of parks and monuments in the world: the Grand Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, the Grand Staircase-Escalante, Capitol Reef, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde. Many others.

And there are more global concerns: The firm consensus of independent scientists now places on us the obligation to assess the use of fossil fuels in light of the specter of global warming. Are the people of the middle and late 21st century so distant and abstract that we will simply charge on, blinders securely in place?

We can hope that the administration, or Congress, will turn away from the short-term thinking that pervaded the Big Buildup. But make no mistake about the danger. This administration wants to turn back the clock. If a Big Buildup II is set in motion, the wild Colorado Plateau, one of America's most hallowed places, may never recover.

Charles Wilkinson is the Moses Lasky Professor of Law, University of Colorado; a trustee of Grand Canyon Trust; and author of Fire on the Plateau: Conflict and Endurance in the American Southwest.

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