On the Road to 50: A grand beginning

It’s a dangerous and promising time. HCN seeks to tell the many stories of the West.


“On the Road to 50” is a series of community gatherings in cities across the region, collecting feedback about HCN’s future direction as we approach our
50th anniversary in 2020.

One of the great blessings of working for High Country News, as I have for the past three decades, is that I constantly get to learn new things about the West. As I tell our new interns and editors: Consider this your extended graduate school on the region, with field trips to the most glorious, mind-expanding and oft-abused places on the planet.

HCN will turn 50 in 2020, and we are working hard to ensure we thrive for another 50 years, and beyond. Over the next many months, I will be on the road a lot, visiting readers and donors and talking to people who are shaping the West of today and tomorrow. Periodically, I’d like to share what I learn with you here.

One thing I already know: The West stands at a pivotal crossroads, at a time both dangerous and promising. Many of the dangers were visible when HCN first appeared on black-and-white newsprint in 1970: a surging human population, imperiled wildlife, polluted waterways, the extractive industries dominating public and Native lands. Others have gained visibility more recently: climate change, the growing divide between rich and poor, an unresolved history of violence and intolerance, and a hypnotic digital media environment that does as much to separate people as it does to bring us together.

Colors of the Grand Canyon reflect in the Colorado River.
Paul Larmer

The promise lies in the resilience of the land and its people. Last month, I joined a river trip down the Grand Canyon organized by Jim Enote, a member of the Zuni Tribe, who runs the Colorado Plateau Foundation out of Flagstaff, Arizona. As we drifted down the Colorado River, Jim described the work he and others have been doing on the Zuni Pueblo and Hopi Reservation to help young people retain their Native languages and cultures, including their connection to the Grand Canyon. “I tell the kids that if they follow our Zuni River downstream, they’ll get to the Little Colorado River, which eventually meets the Colorado River here in the Grand Canyon, where we came into the world,” Jim told us at our launch spot at Lees Ferry.

Three days later, at that confluence, we watched the Little Colorado’s warm, chocolaty brown waters merge with the cold green flows of the Colorado. The only reason the river was so clear is the upstream presence of Glen Canyon Dam, which, since 1963, has trapped most of the river’s silt in its reservoir, Lake Powell. It is, in other words, artificially clear.

Recreation here is artificial as well. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s measured releases from Lake Powell provide electricity and water to Phoenix and Las Vegas. But they also ensure about seven months of relatively safe rafting for tour groups like ours. Without the dam, the Colorado would, in a wet year like this one, roar at dangerously high levels in the spring, only to shrink to flows too low for safe passage by midsummer.

“We might only be able to take boats down here a couple of months a year,” said Robby Pitagora, our trip leader, who has spent the past 40 years running and studying the canyon. That would mean fewer jobs in recreation, so important to cities like Flagstaff, and fewer people experiencing the canyon’s harsh beauty. But all of this impacts the river’s natural ecology. Today, exotic trout compete with humpback chub and the other endangered native fish that evolved in the once-silty waters, and the canyon’s shrinking beaches have become choked with vegetation despite an extra-large “restoration” release from the dam every November.

Jim Enote on his 13th trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, with Paul Larmer.
Courtesy of Rivers & Oceans

And yet, massive as it is, the dam is not permanent. Silt is already reducing the reservoir’s capacity, flowing in liquid clouds toward the dam’s hydro-turbines. Drought is speeding up the process, even as climate change could magnify gigantic floods in the future. (In 1983, High Country News ran its first bona fide scoop on how a huge runoff that year almost destroyed the dam.) We floated past the site in Marble Canyon where the federal government originally planned to build a dam in the park, trying to imagine what the canyon would look from a boat floating hundreds of feet above us. The Sierra Club, led by David Brower and others, successfully fought that proposal, but acceded to the building of Glen Canyon Dam upstream, a trade-off Brower regretted to his dying day.

On the sixth day, we reached Phantom Ranch, an oasis on the relatively flat delta of Phantom Creek. We rose early the next morning to begin the 8-mile, 4,500-foot climb to the South Rim, joining a steady stream of human traffic as we approached the top. Near the rim, we ran into parents and grandparents and children skipping down the trail — a few of the more than 6 million people who visit Grand Canyon National Park each year. We heard snippets of conversation in many languages.

So what is the meaning of the Grand Canyon? A great place to eat ice cream and take a selfie? An ancestral homeland? A mind-boggling landscape where natural and human forces collide to create beauty and contradiction? It all depends on your point of view. I came away from my first Grand Canyon experience with a sharper sense of the issues facing our beloved West and a deeper respect for the people who care about it. That’s what we hope to accomplish at High Country News for the next 50 years. Happy trails.

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