Telling the story of the changing West

As the Trump administration retrenches, there’s a rising call for justice and political reform.

 

Hundreds of youth climate activists demonstrate outside of BlackRock’s offices in San Francisco, California, as part of a nationwide strike coinciding with the United Nations climate summit.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“On the Road to 50” is an ongoing series of the publisher and editor's notes to our readers, as they travel the region and plan for our 50th anniversary – through community gatherings, individual meetings, and other listening sessions.

It was June 28, 1983, and things had gone seriously sideways at Glen Canyon Dam. Spring thaw had sent torrents of meltwater into the Colorado River, and the Bureau of Reclamation was desperately trying to get that water through the works before Lake Powell spilled over.

The 710-foot engineering wonder “was shaking, vibrating madly,” T.J. Wolf wrote in this publication in December of 1983. Then he conjured the scene one might have witnessed from the bridge just downriver from the dam:

“You would have seen the steady sweep of the spillway mouths suddenly waver, choke, cough, and then vomit forth half-digested gobbets of steel reinforced concrete (bad, very bad), spew out blood-red water (My God, it’s into bedrock), and finally disgorge great red chunks of sandstone into the frothy chaos below the dam.”

Wolf imagined dams downstream toppling like dominoes, wreaking watery havoc and dooming the Bureau itself. The son of a Bureau engineer, he was aghast at the prospect, though he knew that some would cheer the destruction.

These days, throughout the West, there are new rumblings. They’re coming from a rising generation and resurgent tribal nations and communities of color, demanding justice and political reform. The establishment is hell-bent on holding them back, but one wonders how long the dam will hold.

“The establishment is hell-bent on holding them back, but one wonders how long the dam will hold.”

All this is on my mind as I return to High Country News after 14 years. I got my start here, under Ed and Betsy Marston. Now I’m back to take the publisher’s seat as Paul Larmer concentrates on raising $10 million for HCN’s 50th anniversary campaign.

The Old West has retrenched in the past few years. A sagebrush rebel runs the Bureau of Land Management. Environmental policies have been rolled back. Ammon Bundy is on a revival tour, and there’s talk of putting cows back on the Escalante. 

But there’s no denying the rumbling. We heard it at the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and we see it in cities from Seattle to Salt Lake City, where residents are demanding action on climate change. As I write, I see it in the surge of support for a democratic socialist who is vying for the White House, buoyed by primary voters from Colorado to California.

A new, diverse, justice-minded generation is rising, and the political edifice is beginning to rattle. There’s a feeling of inevitability to it — it’s a simple question of demographics, right? But we’ve seen the inevitable halted before.

In 1983, Glen Canyon Dam held fast. Its demise will come, but slowly, as Lake Powell fills with sediment. It will be decades before the hydroelectric turbines whirl to a stop and the river again has its way. 

I hope that High Country News will still be here to tell the story. We’re 50 years in, thanks to you, dear readers. May there be 50 more. 

Greg Hanscom is the publisher and executive director of High Country News. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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