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A Premature Burial

The Remaking of Cataract Canyon (Part Five)

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR


Day Four.

The dawn is hot. Even the rocks seem to tremble at the appearance of the morning sun. The sky is cloudless. Again. Spotless, except for a single Swainson’s hawk probing the bottomland for lizards and mice.

There’s a new pulse to the camp this morning, an excitement, a tension. If all goes well, by noon today we will swing around the final bend of the Green River to its famous barbed confluence with the Grand River, where the true Colorado is born and makes its stunning debut in rough-and-tumble Cataract Canyon. Eighteen frenzied miles of freedom. And then

The rafts must be re-rigged, all the gear lashed down tightly for the tumult of the rapids. Weisheit is pulling bags out of the catchall, the small hold in the center of his raft, when he suddenly jumps back, bouncing on his tiptoes on the side of the raft in a delicate balancing act worthy of Nadia Comaneci. He squats, peers down into the catchall and confronts the deadliest mammal in Canyonlands: the deer mouse. The big-eared, glassy-eyed, innocent-looking rodent is the leading vector of the deadly Hantavirus, a form of hemorraghic fever like Ebola and Marburg, which it spreads through its urine. Over the next two days, Hanta the Mouse eludes capture, pissing in the hold of Weisheit’s raft an average of six times an hour.

Here’s what I know about Hantavirus. It begins with a subtle stiffness of the muscles, progresses within hours to an incapacitating fever, and ends with blood gushing out of your ears, eyes, asshole. There are better ways to die.

And that’s not all. Only last week, biologists discovered dead pack rats in a rockshelter at Natural Bridges National Monument, fifty miles or so to the southeast of our campsite. The rodents died of black plague. Yet another defensive strike in nature’s guerilla war.

We float leisurely on the Green, at one with the pace of the river, paddling only to loosen stiffening joints or to reverse our view of the canyon as it slips inexoribly away from us.

We move slowly, but not slowly enough. Not for me. There are birds that escape identification, canyons that slide by unexplored, granaries on ledges that we just might be able to reach, dinosaur tracks frozen in sandstone, shady cottonwood groves and blooming gardens of claret-cup cactus, pictograph panels in the ancient Barrier Canyon style up slickrock gorges that end in hidden waterfalls, past sites marked for dams by the demented engineers at the Bureau of Reclamation, past sunken barges, badger dens and peregrine nests on lofty aeries in crevices of the White Rim, now scrolling by 1000 feet above us.

Lorenzo longs to come face-to-face with a cougar or, at the very least, catch a glimpse of her tail as she leaps from one ledge of Cedar Mesa to another. And surely she is out there. Waiting.

But we must press on. We have a plane to catch in Hite. Three days from now. It will not wait.

Even here in the silent depths of Stillwater Canyon the gravitational force of civilization grips us, tugs us down the river, pulls us toward our rendezvous with the chill waters of the Blue Death. And we relent.

* * *

Marta calls our attention to a gathering of odd, frenetic birds with plump bodies and tiny heads, strutting nervously on a pink plate of sand at the mouth of Jasper Canyon. Chukars. Another Asian import. These pheasant-like gamebirds from the sere steppes of China were set loose in the arid west a century ago by the followers of Teddy Roosevelt, who had evidently grown bored of blowing away sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chickens and wild turkeys. The chubby chukars have done pretty well for themselves, even though as a species they may well be, as my pal John Holt calls them, the goofiest birds in the West. Holt, one of the best outdoor writers in America, kills chukars as often as he can across the plains and canyons of Montana and Wyoming.

Killing chukars is harder than it sounds. As a rule, chukars are dumb. Dumb, yes, but lucky, too. When flushed, they don’t simply face their danger, as novice kayakers are instructed, they fly right toward it, in short, erratic bursts. En masse. Holt swears you can blow your own head off hunting chukar, even when, inexplicably, you haven’t been sipping Jack Daniels all afternoon. Mr. Cheney, this bird’s for you.

Suddenly, the chukars freeze, as a scream pierces the sky, like fingernails scraping a blackboard. A peregrine falcon careens on a laser-line from the canyon rim toward the covey of chukars at nearly 200 miles per hour, the fastest living creature (and the most beautiful). As the sleek raptor nears its mark, the bird breaks off its assault and veers back up into the canyon air only a few feet from the cowering chukars, who seem immobilized by the falcon’s mesmerizing cry.

"The falcon seems to be playing a game of Chinese chukars," Kimberly quips.

The fact that the chukars are so prominent on the beaches of the Green River is slightly disorienting and yet another sign that something is amiss. The peregrines may be tired of eating Kung Pao Chukar, but coyotes aren’t. Coyotes normally keep the chukar population of the canyon penned down much farther upslope. Then it occurs to me that in our six days on the river, I haven’t seen nor heard the midnight yowling of a single coyote, once a ubiquitous presence across Canyonlands. The ranchers who ring the park have taken their toll on the coyote, stringing their skinned corpses from barbed wire fences, planting poisoned meat in under sagebrush, dousing their dens with gasoline and then igniting the mothers and their pups, studding the plains with M-80 bomblets that explode when touched, mangling paws, shredding jaws, killing many outright, leaving others to wander mortally wounded across the desert. Coyote, the desert trickster, is a magnet for the most sadistic impulses of the western land barons.

* * *

The thin riparian curtain of tamarisk that parallels the river shivers with life: flycatchers and phoebes, finches and phalaropes, painted ladies and calliope hummingbirds.

I’m beginning to develop a grudging, guilty admiration for some of these invasive species, tamarisk and chukars, catfish and Russian thistle (AKA tumbleweed) for their relentless hold on life, for their resilience under conditions of extreme environmental stress.

The tamarisk, also known as salt cedar, not only crowds out willows and other native trees and shrubs through prolific growth and deep rooting, it also engages in biological warfare, secreting a toxin that kills off competing vegetation.

Time is accelerating. The climate is in overdrive. Only the most adaptable have a good shot at survival in the long term. So let us praise the blasted tamarisk, willow-eating plant of the Colorado. There is a tenacity to the life force which suggests it will withstand anything we throw at it, from global warming to H-bombs. Consider the endoliths, organisms that burrow deep inside of rocks. Canyonlands is chock full of endoliths, who, one hopes, will come slouching out of their quartzite fissures as the final rebuttal to the Rapture, the ultimate death wish of the Christian hordes and the physicists of Armageddon, who count down the End Time to the last nanosecond. Sorry boys, life goes on.

* * *

We round yet one more bend in the Green-let there always be one more bend to this river-and are greeted by a thrilling cascade of notes. It’s either Ornette Coleman or Catherpus Mexicanus, the canyon wren. A true Troglodyte.

The tiny wren’s undulating song floats on a current of cool air sliding out of Powell Canyon, an amphitheater-like gouge in the red wall near the famous barbed confluence of the Green and the Grand. The one-armed Major stopped here for a day and hauled himself up the terraced walls of the canyon to the rim for a stunning view down the Meander Anticline to the Grand River and spiny back of what is now called the Needles District.

My thoughts turn to Powell, a fellow Midwesterner drawn to this harsh and vulnerable landscape. Powell was born in 1834 at Mt. Morris, near Palmyra, New York, to itinerant Methodist preacher. At an early age, Powell rejected his father’s religious fervor and instead fell under the spell of a local naturalist named George Crookham, who encouraged Powell to go west. Under Crookham’s advice, Powell left home at the age of 16, spent time in Wisconsin and studied natural science at Oberlin College and later in Illinois, where he began teaching school, taking float trips down the Mississippi, studying geology and collecting fossils. An passionate abolitionist, Powell enlisted in Lincoln’s Army soon after the attack on Ft. Sumner, soon becoming a favorite of Ulysses S. Grant, who valued Powell’s engineering skills. Powell commanded one of the artillery batteries at the battle of Shiloh, where he lost his right arm. He was nursed to health by his wife, Emma Dean, and then threw himself back into the war, especially at the bloody battle of Vicksburg.

After the war, Powell returned to Illinois, where he natural sciences at several small Illinois colleges, founded the Illinois Natural History Society and began making summer explorations in the Colorado Rockies. In 1869, five years after losing his arm, Powell began his first venture down the Green and Colorado Rivers. This wasn’t an Army expedition. It didn’t enjoy the backing of the federal government. Powell wasn’t the hired errand boy of an eastern industrialist turned philanthropist. He wasn’t searching for gold or oil. He was merely a largely self-educated teacher at a small college in rural Illinois with a consuming interest in geology. Locals admired his shell collection. His expedition to the Colorado Plateau was financed by the Illinois Natural History Society, of which he was the president. Powell was the oddball on the roster of explorers of the American outback. He didn’t have the educational pedigree of Clarence Dutton and didn’t have the imperial ambitions of John Fremont. His trip was as close to pure science as the continent had yet seen.

His first voyage began outside the small town of Green River, Wyoming with four small boats and a crew of nine other men, hunters, drifters, friends, and shell-shocked Civil War vets, including his paranoid and unstable brother Walter. The trip would take them through some of the world’s deepest and most beautiful canyons, including Lodore, Desolation, Labyrinth, Cataract and the Grand, over vicious rapids and through sizzling uncharted deserts and Indian country to Colorado’s confluence with the Virgin River at Grand Wash in southeastern Utah, 1,000 miles downstream.

Two years later Powell returned to the Colorado Plateau, flush with $12,000 of federal government cash for the mapping of the Colorado Plateau. The second expedition, this one crewed by geologists, photographers and painters, was closely followed by the booster press and congress. Powell’s self-glorifying account of his excursions, Exploration of the Colorado River, was published in 1975 by the Smithsonian. Although the book conflates the two journeys into a single narrative and elides almost all mention of the work his colleagues, it stands as one of the most thrilling adventure stories ever written. The book became a bestseller and helped Powell win his position as the head of the Bureau of Ethnology. Although he believed that Native Americans should be compensated for their lands and then forcibly assimilated into white society, Powell was a sensitive and humane ethnographer, a model of sorts for the later work of Franz Boas and Robert Marshall.

Three years later, Powell published his influential Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, which called for a reorganization of the settlement and development of the west under the auspices of a new government agency, which he, of course, wanted to head. Powell was rewarded with the leadership of the US Geological Survey. But the fate of the West ended up in the hands of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Land Management.

Powell was a man of science, yes, but also of technology. Powell was one of the first apostles of scarcity. The age of exploration would give way to the age of managed exploitation of nature. He dreamed of harnessing the river, capturing its power, putting it into utilitarian service. Powell didn’t share Thoreau’s belief in the redemptive power of wilderness and wild, untamed rivers. A various turns Powell could be called a progressive, a realist, a technocrat, ready to re-engineer nature and western society through the distribution of water, an advocate of centralized planning on a vast scale.

He also was still a Jeffersonian, an agrarian, even though Powell would reject Jefferson’s gridded township system for political boundaries contoured to watersheds, hydrographic basins. He embraced the progressive ideal that the arid wasteland could be redeemed by the judicious application of irrigation principles-the atheist could not escape the framework of his father’s Methodism.

Like Jefferson, Powell believed that democratic values flourished from small farms and ranches. An irrigated West, Powell believed, would keep the interior reaches of the country from falling into the hands of the monopolists and robber barons.

Powell was willing to impound nearly every drop of the Colorado River’s water behind dams–built not in the depths of the canyons, but higher in the mountains in order to minimize evaporation. The major was quite explicit about his intentions, writing: "All the waters of all the arid lands will eventually be taken from their natural channels." Note the double "alls."

Even so, Powell estimated that all of that water–taken from the Green, the Colorado, the Gila, the Missouri, and the Rio Grande–would only succeed in making 2 to 3 percent of the land in the arid west yield viable crops or grazing lands. Like Gifford Pinchot and other progressive conservationists, Powell sought to rationalize and control the development of these irrigation lands by reserving them in the public estate, making most of the west a kind of federal commons interspersed with homesteads and small communities.

"I early recognized that ultimately these natural features would present conditions which would control the institutional or legal problems," Powell wrote in his Report on the Arid Lands. He believed the landscape would shape the political geography, form a natural safeguard to over-population and economic exploitation.

He was wrong, of course, and soon began to realize just how completely the power elite had captured the government and used that power to redesign the plumbing of the West’s rivers, training the spigots to their own enterprises, irrigating the vast plantations of the Imperial, San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, worked by the West’s equivalent of slave labor. Irrigation led to servitude, not liberation, cartels not small-scale democracies, the centralized water bureaucracy a servant of the hydroimperialists not an honest broker of the public interest.

Powell began to see the shape of the future, the perversion of his vision and began to object. He engaged in fierce congressional combat with Senator William Stewart of Nevada, the Ted Stevens of his time. Powell was one of the first whistleblowers and he met the fate reserved for most of his kind: he was chased out of office, running from trumped up charges of corruption and financial malfeasance.

The Colorado River system is crying out for a new generation of whistleblowers, government biologists, hydrologists and geologists, willing to risk their own careers to save a river ecosystem on the brink of collapse. They will, naturally, be vilified, ridiculed, investigated and threatened by the cabal of interests profiteering on the demise of the Colorado and their political hacks in Washington. Now comes word that the Bush admnistration, in collision with its wholly-owned Supreme Court, is axing the last frail protections federal whistleblowers enjoy against government purges. So these scientists, should they ever step into the public spotlight, will need cover and protection from Gang Green, the big DC enviro groups, like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society-the environmental groups that gave you Glen Canyon Dam (and so many more). Fat chance.

Here’s a snapshot of what some of the scientists have told me privately, the bleak portrait of a river in decline. And not just any river, either, but the Colorado, the great river of the West. The annual floods of the Green, Grand and Colorado rivers have been neutered, as upstream dams straight-jacket the flow of the rivers, turning the volume on and off at will, according to the whims of the powergrid. The channel of the river is narrowing. The seasonal wetlands and marshes are vanishing. Springs and seeps are drying up. Beaches are disappearing. The water table is dropping. The cottonwood groves are dying off, and so are the sand and coyote willows, squeezed out by tamarisk. The river is losing its organic nutrients, as driftwood and other debris is entombed behind the dams. Endemic species of fish, like the humpback chub, which evolved only in the Colorado Basin, are sliding toward oblivion, replaced by catfish and carp. The water behind the dams is evaporating, turning saline, loading up with pesticides, petrochemicals and fecal matter. The reservoirs are silting up, losing storage capacity and electrical generating capability. The dams themselves are vulnerable to catastrophic breaches and terrorist attacks-and they’re not referring here to terminally ill river-rats with access to a houseboat and 17 beer coolers packed with C-4 explosives.

To be continued.

Remaking Cataract Canyon: Part One.

Remaking Cataract Canyon: Part Two.

Remaking Cataract Canyon: Part Three.

Remaking Cataract Canyon: Part Four.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering from the War on Terror. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.