Up in the air, a living memorial

California condors are back

  • Andrew Gulliford

 

I recently walked across Arizona's Navajo Bridge, 500 feet above the swirling Colorado River.  The bridge was finished 82 years ago -- an epic accomplishment -- and it is now listed as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. I began my walk on the Navajo Reservation, where I surveyed a canyon that was almost destroyed by proposed dams in the 1960s.

The professional beavers at the Bureau of Reclamation had wanted to dam Marble Canyon, but the public said no -- especially after Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower launched a media campaign in the New York Times. Brower's full-page ads featured the memorable slogan: "Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel, so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?

Today, the historic bridge holds no traces of environmental controversy; instead, it honors the historic river crossing and all the boaters who died in the river's rapids. On the Navajo side, the Gap Bodway Chapter House remembers John Deering or Bih Bitoodini Nez of the Maii Deeshgiizhini Clan who transported supplies and mail from Flagstaff to Salt Lake City by team and wagon, hunted the area, and raised livestock.

Another bronze plaque recalls Lewis Nez, born of the To'DiChi'l'Nii or Bitter Water Clan, who hauled freight and mail between Kanab, Utah, and Flagstaff, Ariz. "A friend to everyone," he died with two other men on June 7, 1928, when the ferry overturned into the Colorado. His body was never recovered. That tragic accident, the last one for the ferry, spurred the push for a bridge.

Made of Kansas City structural steel and 500 cubic yards of concrete, the 834-foot-long, 18-foot-wide bridge has a magnificent cantilevered arch. Construction crews dangled 500 feet over the river, building the bridge in two sections -- working outward from each side of the canyon until they finally connected it in the middle. When Navajo Bridge officially opened on January 12, 1929, the Flagstaff paper proclaimed it "the biggest news in Southwest history."

Between 1938-1941, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a rustic stone wayside observation shelter on the northwest side. Plaques commemorate pioneers and early river runners, including boatman Norman D. Nevills and his wife, who began modern river-running on the San Juan. A bronze plaque states, "They run the rivers of eternity."

I admired the craftsmanship of the CCC boys who built the observation shelter and was touched by the commemorative plaques, but it was something under the adjacent 1994 highway bridge that really caught my eye. Walking across the historic span and looking over to the new bridge, I saw what looked like a black plastic garbage bag.

Then I thought to myself, "That's not a garbage bag -- that's one helluva big raven." And suddenly I realized that it was not a raven: It was an endangered California condor, the bird with the 10-foot wingspan. It was hunkered down on a cold girder, looking like a punk rock star in need of a latte.

It was Condor No. 69, according to the tag attached to its wing. The condor's head was fluffy, its neck was red and it looked generally unhappy. It was an overcast morning and the bird clearly needed half a toasted mastodon, just like back in the good old days during the Pleistocene, when condors swooped down on the leftovers after Paleo-Indians finished feasting. But that had been ice ages ago, long before this bridge was built. And here I was staring at the largest bird in North America, back from the brink of extinction.

Then I saw the others. No. 76 sat on a stone ledge where the bridge connected to the canyon, and a third bird, perhaps No. 54, stayed in seclusion against the rocks. My wife and I watched them for nearly half an hour as they used sharp beaks to preen their feathers. Then they took off quickly, becoming tiny black eyebrows flying away against the immensity of the Grand Canyon.

Navajo Bridge is an engineering marvel, and its construction united southern and northern Arizona. Still, too much of the American West in the 20th century was about building, changing and manipulating the environment solely for human benefit. We showed that we were learning restraint when we stopped needless dams in Marble Canyon, and yet our real accomplishment may have been passing the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which puts humanity in its place as a member of the vast community of life.

I respect the bridge's bronze memorials, but I treasure even more the living wonder of California condors once again flying above their ancient turf.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is professor of Southwest Studies and History at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNITY OUTREACH MANAGER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Outreach Manager to reach and forge new relationships with individuals and groups who represent communities historically...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Wild Rockies Field Institute is seeking a visionary Executive Director to lead the organization in Missoula, Montana. Individuals with a proven track record in...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.