Who speaks for the Colorado Plateau?

A locally based group tries to set the agenda for 130,000 square miles

  • The Grand Canyon from Point Sublime, North Rim

    David Ochsner/Grand Canyon Trust
  • The Colorado Plateau

    Diane Sylvain
  • Rock formation

    Grand Canyon Trust
  • Grand Canyon Trust staff

    Raechel M. Running

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - -Just look around this room," said Claudeen Bates Arthur, legal counsel to the Navajo Indian Nation. "I am hard put to categorize anybody here."

Arthur was observing the individuals gathered last winter to talk about protecting the vast Colorado Plateau - an area that includes parts of five states and surrounds the Grand Canyon.

Sitting around six tables were a Mormon bishop, a former Harvard Business School instructor, an ex-Marine, a one-time Fort Worth, Texas, land developer, a Grand Canyon boatman, a physician, a retired university president, a former newspaper editor, an Indian tribal chairman, a wealthy Quaker and a water policy guru. On the edge of the crowd stood a former Phoenix mayor who has designs on higher office.

To the casual observer there wasn't an environmental crusader in sight. Nevertheless, a sense of mission came through the conversation among members of the Grand Canyon Trust: to act as stewards of the enormous Colorado Plateau, to oppose corporate and bureaucratic interests who would develop the area for short-term gain, to strive for a more sustainable future for all the Plateau's creatures, not just bears, mountain lions, eagles and fish, but working people, too.

With 6,000 members from 48 states and nine foreign countries, the Grand Canyon Trust's mission is to seek that elusive, ecologically sustainable balance between resource use and preservation of the air, water, land and ancient cultures.

"The challenge for us is to show leadership for the region," says Trust executive director Tom Jensen, formerly a congressional staffer for Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The region is the size of the New England states, New York and Pennsylvania - 130,000 square miles - but its population is a paltry 1.2 million people, or about 2 percent the density of New England.

The Trust's peacemaking, usually non-confrontational style would have been regarded as just this side of traitorous during the boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"We always look to see if we can sit down with the archenemy to find common ground first," says Roger Clark, the group's conservation director. "If that doesn't work, we regroup and pursue other options."

What makes the Trust different from mainstream environmental groups is its belief that people who disagree about many things - from religion and birth control to guns and predator control - can still find common ground when it comes to preserving the Colorado Plateau from mindless growth. That means getting to know local people in small towns and hashing out what "quality of life" really means.

The idea for the Grand Canyon Trust was sown by river runner Martin Litton and by the veteran California conservationist Huey Johnson on a raft trip through the Grand Canyon in 1983. It was during the time when Interior Secretary James Watt seemed determined to transform the Plateau into a national sacrifice area for the nation's energy appetite.

When the Trust began in 1985, it was incorporated by a handful of canyon-lovers, including former Harvard Business School professor Jim Trees, now a Utah fruit rancher.

It was nourished by then Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who says he had mulled the idea for years, and also by Stewart Udall, Interior secretary under Kennedy and Johnson.

Of the Plateau, the late writer Edward Abbey wrote, "There is no other region on earth much like it, or even remotely like it ... this is a landscape that has to be seen to be believed, and even then, when confronted directly by the senses, it strains credulity."

To be sure, early on a summer day on the south rim of the Grand Canyon that divides the plateau in half, one can still see 100 miles in any direction. But the finely sculpted lines on distant buttes and mesas, north into Utah, east into New Mexico, west toward California and southward into Arizona, are often smudgy. The canyons wear a mantle of yellow haze emanating from nearby cities, power plants, smelters and toxic dumps.

A patchwork of jurisdictions

Politically, the Plateau is also smudgy. Those who would form a new consensus run smack into the Plateau's balkanized plight. More than 60 percent of it is publicly owned and managed from distant places by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. Another 25 percent belongs to Native Americans, 6 percent to states, and the balance is held privately.

Public administration of the Plateau is a crazy-quilt patchwork of competing, often discordant jurisdictions and management authorities: four states, a dozen Indian tribes, 34 counties, 225 communities, 26 national parks, monuments, national historic sites and recreation areas, 15 national forests and 10 Bureau of Land Management districts.

It is through this maze the Grand Canyon Trust tries to cut a productive path. It confronts impasses between the various jurisdictions which have been made even more intractable by "command and control" regulations from Washington, the reluctance of national environmental groups to consider local economies in their reform proposals for the region, and by the frequently arrogant refusal of developer/federal agency forces to halt their extractive ways with the land.

Finally, what's never mentioned in tourism brochures designed for the Plateau's 6-10 million annual visitors, probably half of them from overseas, is that this domain, romantic impressions notwithstanding, is a boom-and-bust third-world colony serving the whims of distant, first-world regions.

Evidence includes public natural resources exploited at below-market prices. A small, politically weak populace provides cheap labor, and few rules exist to govern future growth and development. Among residents, this noxious stew has created doubts and fears which are undermining their sense of place.

The Trust hopes to address those concerns, as well. For example, Trust employee Tony Skrelunas is working with the Native American Tourism Council to help capture and keep some of the revenue garnered by tourism, Clark notes.

Trust officials savor accolades from such old hands on the Plateau as Sam Taylor, editor of the Times-Independent in Moab, Utah. He applauds the group for being a "real broker for compromise, for trying hard to get both polarized extremes to find areas of consensus."

The national media haven't paid much attention, perhaps, but the Grand Canyon Trust's recent accomplishments include:

* Negotiating a settlement with the Navajo Power Plant owners at Page, Ariz., to slash emissions by 90 percent by 1999. The coal-fired plant dumps 70,000 tons of sulfur dioxide emissions into the Grand Canyon airshed every year. Located 16 miles from the Grand Canyon, it is the dirtiest coal-fired plant in the West.

The Bureau of Reclamation resisted controls while the Bush administration drew the line at a 70 percent reduction. The Trust held out for and got 90 percent.

* Leading the fight for the Grand Canyon Trust Protection Act, passed in 1992, that renders illegal the long-standing federal policy of maximizing hy-dropower generation at Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River at the expense of downstream resources in the Grand Canyon.

* Drafting the provisions of the National Parks Overflights Act to reduce noise levels in Grand Canyon National Park.

* Wearing down Arizona highway interests, particularly Arizona Gov. Fife Symington, who had urged a billion-dollar super-road through Flagstaff that would extend I-17 into Utah and on to Canada.

In early 1993, highway backers determined - without benefit of public involvement - that an unbroken interstate highway system from Mexico to Canada through the heart of the Colorado Plateau was the ideal route to capture trade dollars from south of the border.

A year ago, the early warning alarm systems at the Trust's Flagstaff office began clanging. Rejecting a confrontational approach, Trust staffers instead lined up other conservation and citizen groups to write letters to the state of Arizona and its elected officials.

All carried the same message: Arizona's plan would violate the Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act, a new law whose intent is not to perpetuate the practice, says Trust conservation director Clark, of "thoughtlessly pouring more concrete into massive interstate highways."

Clark wrote that letter despite being advised by the governor's aides that the I-17 proposal was the only route because it was the shortest and least costly option. An alternative route from Phoenix to Las Vegas, Clark was told, was off the list.

Spurred by stories of what happened to towns like Ash Fork, Williams, Peach Springs and Seligman, Ariz., after I-40 replaced U.S. Route 66, the Trust and its allies refused to compromise.

They went to those communities for support and one of the community leaders they found was Winslow, Ariz., Mayor Georgia Metzger. She recalled that I-40 meant more than the loss of business to her community.

"Locally owned businesses in town were where people got to know each other," she said. "When the large department stores, gas stations, and grocery stores relocated out on the interstate, we lost a sense of familiarity in our small community. Crime increased, I think, because we no longer knew who to trust."

Then, in late July 1993, the state released its draft report. It turned out that the existing U.S. Hwy. 93 route from Phoenix to Las Vegas "is a much more cost effective route, with fewer environmental headaches."

The super-road was dead; the Trust's brokering had paid off.

The Trust has also become involved in public-land grazing reform through an association with Dan Dagget, an environmental activist who has received foundation grants to write a book about 10 ranches. Tentatively titled Good Stewards, Shared Vision, Dagget says his book will focus on cattlegrowers who work hard to keep riparian areas healthy and all their land in good shape.

Dagget, a Sierra Club member, has a critic in Arizona environmentalist Bobbie Holaday. She says a "working group" she began in 1989, composed of six ranchers and six environmentalists, including Dagget, eventually leaned so much toward cattle-growing it should have been called "the sodbusters."

Dagget denies the charge. The 6-6 group has only a tangential connection with the Trust, notes Clark, and has not met for about a year. "We contracted with Dan in order to use his talent and expertise. We assume ranching will continue in the area - though in a much different way. We will continue to seek out the best examples and set them forward."

Like Johnny Appleseed of old, Trust staffers go from town to town preaching the new conservation gospel of the 1990s. At a recent meeting of the Sedona Academy in Prescott, Ariz., about 100 citizens, who gather annually in a town-hall setting to discuss issues, heard Jim Ruch, now the Trust's senior conservation advisor, offer the new gospel.

"We don't say 'education versus the economy,' or 'law enforcement or the economy,' " Ruch said. "Insistence on a zero-sum game with winners and losers on this issue is at the heart of many a bitter community controversy and the heartache of many well-intentioned community leaders." He received a standing ovation for arguing that economic and environmental issues are part of a whole.

A permanent presence

Of the Trust's track record, Ed Norton, one-time president and now a senior consultant, who is known to some as a "Rottweiler in granny glasses' for his negotiating abilities, says, "What has been needed on so many of these issues is just constant presence, persistent presence because the other guys - the grazing interests, the uranium mining interests, the commodity interests - have ongoing relations with public agencies like the Bureau of Land Management.

"They are always there and frequently the conservation interests are there only intermittently, episodically at best. And frequently, very late in the game, when decisions are already a long way down, the public gets around," Norton continues. "I think that sometimes we just wear the other side out."

The Colorado Plateau is undergoing rapid change. Traditional mining, grazing, timber and agriculture activities are being replaced by tourism, recreation and retirement. Much of the responsibility for this onslaught is being dumped into the laps of local communities, towns, counties and municipalities lacking the infrastructure - water, sewage systems, police - to cope.

"This region is America's last great conservation opportunity," former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall said in an interview in Santa Fe. "And this legacy is in peril."

Trust adherents believe that its most durable legacy will be less visible over the long haul, that it will come in the form of behind-the-scenes collaborative "community-based" decision-making activities with Indian tribes, like the Navajo; with local communities; and with ranchers. This is critical, says Jim Ruch, "because on the Plateau, we have developed neither the social skills nor the land ethic to share this land in peace."

The belief that local people can solve their problems and care for the land at the same time is not always shared by environmentalists, particularly the national groups. When Jim Ruch floated the "community initiatives' idea at a meeting of such groups in Aspen, Colo., a few years ago, Norton recalls that an important regional representative of one of the national groups stood up and thundered, "That will never work. The role of environmental groups is to save the Colorado Plateau from the people who live there."

At that point, Norton got mad. He said such a position was "arrogant, politically foolish, morally bankrupt." Early the next morning, Bruce Babbitt, then a Trustee, took Norton aside, saying, "Sometimes you just go off the edge. What you said was harsh."

But Babbitt also told Norton that he was right on track. "Environmentalists have to take responsibility for environmentalism. We have to make our case for parks, wilderness, cultural resources in terms of people's lives - their desire for jobs and income and family, community stability."

Because Trust founders sought the kind of credibility that derives from being close to the Plateau's problems, they took the unusual step of locating their headquarters near the base of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff and their field office in Washington, D.C., and they have recently opened another field office in St. George, Utah.

From its headquarters, Trust officials are moving down a number of paths that others have not taken. Eventual agreement on the Plateau, Ruch believes, must start with basic understanding.

"When arguments and perspectives are out of balance," says Ruch, "it is always easier to wreck the train than it is to get the railroads to run on time. Today, on the Colorado Plateau, we are pretty talented at train wrecks."

In Sedona, Arizona, James Bishop Jr. is working on a book about Edward Abbey.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- The West is hard at work, destroying its past

- Fly-by tourism may be throttled at Grand Canyon

High Country News Classifieds
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
    Western Watersheds Project seeks a Tenth Circuit Staff Attorney to bring litigation in the interests of protecting and restoring western watersheds and wildlife, particularly focused...
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....