Dispatches, April 1997
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."