When it was designated as a protected area in 1915, Dinosaur National Monument confined the confluence of two of the Colorado River’s major and most magnificent tributaries—the Yampa and the Green Rivers. In the 1950’s, the fantastic palette of scenic, archaeological, and paleontological beauty in this remote corner of Colorado was still little known outside of the sparsely settled local communities. In the minds of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (BuRec) chief bureaucrats these characteristics offered them exactly what they were looking for to “hit another home run” like Hoover Dam had done decades earlier.
The BuRec’s engineers began work by focusing their attention on Echo Park—a lonely, lovely, canyon that looped its way around an 800-foot high sandstone monolith called Steamboat Rock. Steamboat Rock stood in the riverbed just below the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers and, topographically, provided the ideal location for constructing a massive dam. The channel’s narrow trough here would require a relatively minimum concrete span while backing up the water in both channels of the two major rivers. The resulting long expanse of open water would provide plentiful hydroelectric power and boundless recreational opportunities—serving as the perfect complement to other downstream dams and reservoirs that were also already on the engineers’ drafting tables.
All systems were go for this Echo Park Project, or so the Washington politicians and BuRec bureaucrats thought until they met up with the dissenting minds of the Sierra Club led by the Archdruid himself—Executive Director David Brower—and leaders of several other conservation groups. Far from becoming another showcase for the western water controllers, the proposed Echo Park Dam became one of the most momentous victories ever recorded in the history of the US Environmental Movement.
The opposition to Echo Park actually first started when a group of downstream river guides in Utah got wind of what was being bandied about upstream. Both rugged and astute, the guides moved quickly to rally support for their cause and invited Brower and the other conservation leaders to join them for a free trip to see exactly what would be lost to this flooding fiasco.
After spending a few days with the guides, Brower and his fellow conservationists oversaw the formation of an alliance that challenged the BuRec’s claims about the project’s major benefits and limited impacts. The opposition group’s catch phrases included, “We’re not opposed to development. We’re not opposed to dams. We’re just opposed to dams in national parks.” Plus, “We’re not going to stand for another Hetch Hetchy!”
Facing such difficult to refute logic plus withering opposition led by a master organizer like Brower, Congress—after a prolonged and controversial battle—eventually removed Dinosaur National Monument and Echo Park from the act that created the Colorado River Storage Project. But unfortunately—at least in the minds of environmentalists—the story of Echo Park doesn’t end there. In their crusade to preserve Echo Park and Steamboat Rock, Brower and his band of activists accepted a tradeoff—a loss downstream that would anguish them and others for years to come. The deal involved an agreement not to oppose a dam on the Colorado River in a little-known place called Glen Canyon.
In the 1950s, the Sierra Club still was smarting from the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park and the group’s focus was squarely on national parks and monuments, and Glen Canyon had no such protected status. The rationale was that since Glen Canyon wasn’t in a national park, it probably wasn’t all that valuable. But this time the Sierra Club was wrong—very wrong—and Brower deeply regretted his compromise decision. The problem was that no one had really taken the time to check Glen Canyon out and—by the time they did—it was too late.
The Glen Canyon Dam drowned more than 100 miles of spectacular canyon, a rippling desert wilderness that few had ever seen. Salt Lake City River guide, Richard Quist, called Glen Canyon “a sprawling labyrinth of wonder” and said the canyon’s ancient, still-colorful pictographs were “stunningly beautiful.” He also described stumbling onto the canyon’s long-abandoned pit houses as being among his greatest childhood adventures when his dad turned him loose in the side canyons during their float trips.
Brower later wrote a foreword to a 1963 book honoring Glen Canyon entitled, The Place No One Knew, which featured the stunning nature photographs of master photographer, Eliot Porter. But by the time Glen Canyon’s beauty and wildness became more widely known, the dam fighters couldn’t backtrack. The dam was completed in the fall of 1963, and Lake Powell was filled to capacity by 1980—drowning Glen Canyon presumably forever.
The odds of defeating Glen Canyon Dam would have been slim even if the coalition had turned its attention to land outside national parks, instead of focusing solely on Echo Park. The dams weren’t equals—Echo Park would have held about a quarter of what Lake Powell holds—and Glen Canyon Dam was always intended to anchor the upper Colorado River’s water storage system.
Nonetheless, Echo Park became “a symbol of wilderness,” and the battle to save it was chronicled in a 1994 book by this same name. The project’s showdown between Congress, the BuRec, and the Sierra Club—led by David Brower—and other opposing conservation organizations was also widely hailed as a major steppingstone that led to passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Text excerpted from book: “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change” written by Budd Titlow and Mariah Tinger and published by Prometheus Books.
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change”, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — “COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America” — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.