Crusading: Hear the One About Draining Lake Powell?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, April 1997

Crusading: Hear the One About Draining Lake Powell?

A straight-faced Sierra Club uncorks a questionable cause cëlêbre
By Bill Donahue

For The Record

Hey, You're Not Bullwinkle!
"We tried slingshots," explains conservation biologist Joel Berger of his ongoing experiments in Grand Teton National Park and the Talkeetna Range in Alaska. "But we didn't have enough power to launch a urine-soaked snowball the distance between home and first base." So this month he's attempting the next best thing: He and his wife, Carol Cunningham, will dress up like a moose to scatter bear dung. Berger suspects that prey animals forget sensory cues warning of danger when large carnivores remain absent from their ecosystem over several generations. To prove it, the University of Nevada researcher will be depositing grizzly feces near two different moose populations--in the Tetons, where predators have all but disappeared, and in Alaska, where grizzlies and wolves remain abundant--to see how the herds react. Will the wildlife be fooled by the biologists' act? On that, the jury's still out. "The moose seem to be buying it," Berger says of his early trial runs, "but the bison run away every time."

A Bitter End
When one of the greats says good-bye, rarely is he dissed on his way out the door. But in the wake of Miguel Indurain's surprise adios to road cycling in January, the lionizing testimonials were few. "It wasn't a glorious ending," noted Laurent Jalabert, currently the world's top-ranked rider. The fact is, few figured the five-time Tour de France winner, not yet 33, would leave the sport with so much unfinished business. Given his collapse in last year's Tour de France and the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately kiss-off he got from longtime squad Banesto, most thought Indurain would have plenty of motivation for '97. Not only would another season make him about $6 million richer, but a gutsy comeback win for a record sixth Tour title might also give his 12-year career the one thing it lacked: popular appeal. Instead, enigmatic and anticlimactic to the end, Indurain surprised everyone, bowing out on a parting note that was all too typically flat: "I think I've devoted enough time to competitive cycling."

--Todd Balf and Paul Kvinta
(with Barry Lewis)

Sierra Club President Adam Werbach is speaking with the sort of dewy ardor often reserved for college poetry recitals. "If we let the river run free," exalts the 24-year-old Werbach, "our blood will run free." The river in question is the Colorado, a flow clotted by Glen Canyon Dam. But if the Sierra Club were to have its way, as outlined in a recently unveiled proposal passed unanimously by its board, the dam would be rendered obsolete by draining the reservoir it forms--Lake Powell--thus restoring the Colorado River to its free-flowing state through the Grand Canyon. "It's time for an angioplasty," says Werbach.

To which a puzzled world replies, Can the Sierra Club be serious? While the notion of draining Lake Powell has long been a popular fantasy among environmentalists, never before has a mainstream organization championed so seemingly futile a cause in earnest. After all, the lake's many advocates--including the 3.4 million people who visit each year and the six public utilities that draw power from the dam's turbines--constitute a gargantuan foe. "They haven't built a whit of support," snorts Earth First! cofounder Mike Roselle, now head of the Montana-based Ruckus Society. "The Sierra Club is pipe-dreaming."

So why joust with such a windmill when the best possible outcome, say observers, is a bit of media exposure--and the worst is nothing short of becoming a laughingstock? Dave Wegner, the former Bureau of Reclamation ecologist who spearheaded the controlled flooding of the Grand Canyon last spring, argues that the Sierra Club is merely taking the logical postflood tack. "What we did last year was a start," says Wegner, who recently quit the Bureau to protest its resistance to future Colorado River floods, "but the only way to really rehabilitate the ecosystem is by draining Lake Powell."

Of course, another logical answer is that the Sierra Club is simply genuflecting before its aging archdruid, David Brower. "That's certainly a huge part of it," admits Werbach. Indeed, draining Lake Powell has been something of a grail for the 84-year-old Brower, the Club's former executive director and current conscience. In exchange for other concessions, Brower caved in to a coalition of western water providers in 1956, abandoning a long fight against Glen Canyon Dam. He immediately regretted the decision and has been looking for a way to atone for it ever since.

But many observers maintain that the chance to set Brower loose on this crusade is little more than a fringe benefit. The real motive, they say, is that the Sierra Club, whose average member is now about 45, is desperately trying to appear fresh and hip. According to Mark Dowie, author of Losing Ground, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated study of U.S. environmentalism, the Club's board feels that the best way to attract more youthful supporters is to embrace this kind of blind idealism. "Young people are tired of giving up half the forest," Dowie reasons. "Maybe taking no-compromise actions will excite them."

Roselle agrees but expresses doubts that this sort of maneuver can win over Gen X. "It's exactly the kind of thing young people tend to ignore," he argues. "They're into global issues like the ozone layer." Werbach, however, argues that people of his generation can get excited about such issues as the fate of the Colorado as long as they're presented with a clear, concise argument. "We're going to do the science," he vows, explaining that the Club believes that the power the dam generates could easily be recouped through conservation efforts, "and we're going to deliver the facts--gold-plated facts."

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