Erasing the Southwest's grandest vista

  • The Grand Canyon then... and now

    Diane Sylvain

It was Barry Lopez who said that one of the dreams of man must be to find some place between the extremes of nature and civilization where it is possible to live without regret. Until the 1970s, when air pollution from California, Mexico and coal-fired power plants in the region began to limit visibility, the Colorado Plateau and Grand Canyon was such a place.

Today, it is degraded 90 percent of the time with man-made air pollution, government scientists report.

Seeing comes before words. Will the eight Western governors who preside over the Grand Canyon Visibility Transport Commission - established by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1991 - rely on their senses or their political safety?

The chances for cleaning up air in Grand Canyon might be better if they take seriously the experiences of artists and photographers who have sent their views on to the commission. To the business-as-usual assertions expressed by power companies and other industrial interests that regional haze is under control, contemporary artists offer strikingly contradictory evidence based on their personal experience.

Sedona, Ariz.-based Curt Walters, who has painted hundreds of oils of the Grand Canyon, says serious debate about vanishing vistas should have taken place years ago: "Every year, I have seen growing deterioration. I see less and less pollution-free days."

When Walters first saw the Grand Canyon 25 years ago, there were no greenish colors on the bizarre formations explorer and scientist John Wesley Powell called "the library of the gods." Nowadays, he says, the canyon's violets and blues are turning greenish in the yellow haze from 17 coal-fired electric power plants on the Colorado Plateau.

"There are some really ugly days now, yellow days," Walters laments.

But utility companies are telling the media that most of the haze is caused by natural dust. Photographers Robert Clemenz and his wife Sue, who have made their living for years writing about and photographing vistas, rivers and canyons on the Colorado Plateau, don't think the dust is "natural."

"As a photographer," Clemenz told the commission, "I am constantly aware of the quality of light and air. The last time we visited the North Rim for a shoot, we could not photograph at all due to the air quality which was yellow - milky - the worst we have seen it."

Susan Kliewer, a sculptor in bronze, knows the plateau as well as anyone. In the 1970s, she managed the Marble Canyon Trading Post, hard by the Kaibab cliffs where the Grand Canyon begins. "Air pollution has dimmed all the vistas of this beautiful plateau," she reports.

Unless the commission recommends strong action, says Karen Licher, an artist in Arizona's Verde Valley, "people will most likely forget the clarity and magnificence which could once have been taken for granted."

Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Robert Arnberger wonders why the big guns of conservation groups aren't blasting the corporate polluters. He also wishes there was some "genetic voice" which warns: "You better appreciate the air you breathe. Don't take it for granted."

The role of the artist, the writer, the painter, as poet and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams told an interviewer recently, "is to place a mirror before the injustices of society so that the images bypass the intellect and pierce the heart."

The clock is ticking toward the June deadline for the Western governors who make up the air quality commission. May they listen to the artists who speak from the heart.

James Bishop Jr. is author of Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist, the Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey. He lives in Sedona, Arizona.

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