In 1952, Ken Brower entered a new kind of battle. However, as an 8-year-old boy loading up onto an Army surplus neoprene pontoon raft, Brower only had a vague idea about larger fight that some would come to call the “dawn of environmentalism.” He was simply asked to enjoy Colorado’s Yampa River for a film crew. Though Brower recalls some “grumbling” among the children asked to act at the time, he came to grasp the crew’s efforts to raise awareness about a couple of little-known rivers on the Colorado-Utah border that were slated to be dammed. Brower’s father, David, the well-known first executive director of the Sierra Club, would join forces with other famous conservationists including Wallace Stegner to wage an all-out, multi-pronged campaign against the dams. By 1955 the battle was won, and David Brower’s triumph would come to serve as a model for countless conservation efforts that have followed.
In the six decades since that first trip, Ken Brower never returned to the Yampa River. That changed, however, in June 2015 when rafting company O.A.R.S. invited him on a trip to participate in yet another film project. He quickly agreed. The result is Logan Bockrath’s moving short film 62 Years, which documents Brower’s return trip and retells the story of the pivotal victory that led to the river’s ongoing protection. We caught up with Brower to learn a little more about the project.
C&K: The film does a wonderful job of blending the history of the conservation campaign with your personal story. What was it like to return to the river after being away for so long?
Ken Brower: It was funny, I couldn’t remember anything at the put-in. It’d been a long time: 62 years. But as soon as the strata were exposed, I started to remember that look of Yampa Canyon, which isn’t like Glen Canyon or the Grand Canyon. It’s got its own layers of rock. From there the memories started coming back. One of the revelations was to see how the river culture has developed. The boats have changed, but that’s not all. The dress is so different, and the language is different. There’s a whole river culture and lingo that wasn’t there when I’d been there 60 years before.
In a recent piece you wrote for O.A.R.S., you call the fight against Echo Park Dam the “dawn of environmentalism.”
Well, other people have used that phrase. It’s hard to say when anything begins, but this battle was certainly the biggest public lands issue of the 1950s and on into the 1960s when the Grand Canyon dams came up. It was the first time a group of citizens stopped a big government project on their own.
I’d always thought my father designed what I call ‘the prototypic modern environmental campaign.’ He lobbied; he commissioned a book the Wallace Stegner edited; there was a slideshow that circulated the country and the movie that my brother and I were in. But when I began working on a book on the Hetch Hetchy Dam recently, I went back and looked at what Muir did at the turn of the century, 50 years before Echo Park. He and his faction used almost all of the same techniques as my father. One difference though was Muir lost and my father won. That’s a difference.
Why was this issue such a turning point for the environmental movement?
This fight signaled the beginning. It’s hard to remember those times now, but the 1950s was time when the American public was so willing to go along with experts. They were so in love with that kind of big government project. We’d just come out of the war and the Depression, and you have to remember what these dams meant to American people. They were tremendous engineering triumphs. They were the biggest things that were ever built and they served to help us get out of the Depression. They were technical marvels. They captured the imagination.
The early conservationists really had to nurture a new cultural narrative.
Yeah, and what’s amazing about the guys who ground against the dam is how quickly that outlook tipped. I think they helped the public realize, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We have these wonderful engineering projects, but what have we lost?’ [The environmentalists] were good at conveying what a living river was compared to a stagnant reservoir. And people began to realize that everything can’t be measured in kilowatts.
So, part of it was reaching out to people on an emotional level to convince them this was a place that was worth saving. What were some other components of the campaign?
They also had to educate themselves. They had to learn to debate the dam engineers, and to do that, they had to look at the numbers and learn the science.
There’s a famous family story about my dad. He was very good with numbers and he was very smart. He had a very high IQ. In the course of rolling up his sleeves and looking at the data, he said, ‘There’s something wrong with these evaporation numbers.’ He showed his findings to Luna Leopold [son of pioneering environmentalist Aldo Leopold] who was a hydrologist.
Luna said, ‘Dave, evaporation figures are so complicated. Just don’t go there.’
And my mom said to him, ‘David don’t go testify before congress about these numbers. They’ll make a fool of you!’
He paid no attention to any of them and went back to D.C. where undertook a number of debates with dam engineers on blackboards. He just whipped them. That was important. That was a crack in the infallibility of the experts which almost everybody believed at the time.
That’s a great story. Are there any lessons in it for today’s environmentalists?
You had to have both the emotional side and the wonk side. My personal thought is we don’t work the emotional side of the environmental movement as well as we did in those days. We do the wonk side, but I don’t think there’s quite the fervent passion that there was at the beginning. Which I guess is true of any movement — it looses a little bit of the flair it has at birth.
By all accounts your father was very good at operating on both sides of that equation.
I still remember one of the first speeches I heard my dad give when I was camping with him in the Sierras. I was probably 6 or 7. Before that, I thought he was a cool guy, but I just thought everybody’s dad was a conservationist. He started talking to everybody around the campfire on night. He said, ‘These mountains have been wonderful and have elevated our spirits. Now when you go back, you have to reciprocate. It’s your job return the favor and help save these places because they’re in danger.’ He was so good with language. Many people remember that speech who are now in their ’90s. I just remember watching from the campfire — you know the back of your neck is cold and your front is too hot — and I was watching my old man. Looking around the circle, I could tell everybody was absolutely rapt. He had them with his language. He had them by the nuts. And I said to myself, ‘This is unusual. Maybe my dad is special.’
The movement to protect the Colorado River and its tributaries certainly didn’t with the defeat of the Echo Park Dam, or the Grand Canyon dams for that matter. What battles are conservationists fighting on the river today?
In September, I went down the Colorado with some tribes and environmentalists. Right now in the Grand Canyon, there’s the Escalade tram project which is on temporary hold but could rise up again. And there’s uranium mining on the rim and helicopter fights and the Tusayan development on the rim which threatens to drain the water table. It’s a land of little rain and many of the canyon’s springs could dry up.
My dad used to say, ‘You can defeat the dam, but the dam site is always down there in the canyon.’ Another thing he said was they—meaning the extractive industry: the miners, loggers and exploiters. He would say, ‘They only have to win once but we have to win every time.’ That’s just the name of the game in the business. It requires eternal vigilance. It’s a lifelong, never-ending thing you have to do to keep defending these places.
Are there any positive trends you’re seeing nowadays?
Marc Reisner in his book Cadillac Desert talks about the 20th century as the age of dam building. It was just manic for a while. This century is starting out as the age of decommissioning dams, mostly small ones, but the Elwha River [on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula] had two good-sized dams removed recently. Within a few weeks of those dams coming out, there were salmon poking their noses upstream.
The Hetch Hetchy Dam was a terrible mistake that the country was very opposed to when it went in. It needs to come out, but it’s going to be very tough.
— Ken Brower is the author of numerous books on the environment and public lands. His latest is called Hetch Hetchy: Undoing a Great American Mistake by Heyday Books.
— Learn more about the film at 62yearsfilm.com