Rainbow Bridge
Administrative History
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Issues and Conflicts II: Rainbow Bridge National Monument and the Colorado River Storage Project, 1948-1974

One of the most important developments of the 20th century involved the numerous debates and struggles over environmental issues. Indeed, the modern concept of "environmentalism" was forged in the middle part of the century. Environmental issues ranged from protecting the Hetch Hetchy Valley to the use of pesticides to the evolution of urban smog. In the American West, water was the core of a multitude of conflicts. Some of these disputes centered on development schemes involving the Colorado River and one in particular affected Rainbow Bridge NM. The Colorado River also framed the evolving conflict between utilitarian conservationists and strict preservationists. Developing the river begged the question of how public lands under the control of the National Park Service should be managed. Were they meant to be enshrined for permanent preservation or could their status be fluid in comparison to the larger demands of the Upper Colorado Basin states? Plans to develop the Colorado also problematized the role of the Secretary of the Interior. He directly managed two federal agencies—the National Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation—who were at odds in their plans for the Colorado. Controversy over developing the river, thought settled with the signing of the Colorado River Storage Project Act in 1956, emerged again in southern Utah during the 1960s at Rainbow Bridge NM. For over a decade, "Save Rainbow Bridge" was the battle cry of environmental groups and an unforseen glitch in the larger matrix of western water and land management.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, the idea of preservation became part of an evolving ethos in land resource management. The byproduct of this preservationist impulse was legislation that allowed for congressionally approved national parks and presidentially designated national monuments. These new edifices were designed to protect scenic and natural resources as much as possible. Many federal managers hoped that national park or national monument status would avoid most of the conflicts over resource utilization. Preservationists, such as John Muir, asserted that the resources inside the borders of any national park or monument were legally fortified against any encroachment. Until 1913, the preservationist belief in this sacrosanct designation had not been tested. In that year, preservation came under fire at California's Yosemite National Park.

In search of better access to more water, the city of San Francisco lobbied federal officials to construct a reservoir in Hetch Hetchy Valley, which was located inside Yosemite's boundaries. The city's leaders wanted to avoid another disastrous fire like the that of 1906, when most of San Francisco burned to the ground for lack of an adequate water supply. City planners saw their solution in Hetch Hetchy Valley. Since very few people visited that part of Yosemite, San Franciscans argued that the scenery might actually be improved by a pristine reservoir. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, saw the issue differently. The existence of a national park system was the precedent for preservation and the most viable argument against damming Hetch Hetchy. Despite the belief by some that the valley would not suffer any significant loss of beauty or quality, the integrity of all national parks was at stake in Hetch Hetchy, according to Muir. In the end, Muir's belief in national parks as sanctuaries was weighed against the water needs of San Francisco. A reservoir was constructed at Hetch Hetchy and the valley was inundated in 1913. [249]

The controversy over Hetch Hetchy inspired a more philosophical debate, one which had quietly been forming all over the resource laden West. What did Americans value as resources? Traditionally the answer was hard resources such as minerals, timber, and petroleum. But like federal agencies, Americans were also going through changes in their outlook. They were adopting new value structures at the same time that they were prospering in the workplace. Across the economic spectrum, people valued space and recreation as much as revenue and profit. The controversy over Hetch Hetchy revealed a new demand for protected and preserved space. To this end, Congress passed the National Park System Organic Act on August 25, 1916. In addition to authorizing the creation of the National Park Service, the act contributed new language to the dialogue over preservation and development.

In part, the Act stated that the Park Service had a specific mandate. In its "statement of purpose" the Act declared that the a priori purpose of a national park was to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects . . . and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." [250] This language became important to preservationists and their struggle for park and monument sanctity; however, national monuments like Rainbow Bridge were not necessarily protected by the strict language of the law.

The issues of explicit concern to western states during the 1940s and 1950s involved determining which states owned what portion of the Colorado River, the distribution of its water, and the desire to reduce the loss of any unused water. The 1960s controversy over Glen Canyon Dam and Rainbow Bridge NM actually began in 1922 with the signing of the Colorado River Compact. The states bordering the Colorado River were growing rapidly by the 1920s. Los Angeles, California, expanded more than any other city in the West during this period. Severely pressured by an exploding population, southern California needed huge reserves of water to sustain continued development. The Los Angeles Municipal Water District, under the direction of William H. Mulholland, had already "acquired" all the water it could from its northern neighbors in the Owens Valley. But they needed more. California legislators lobbied successfully for the Swing-Johnson Bill, which authorized Boulder Dam on the Colorado River. Given Los Angeles' notorious history in water politics, the rest of the Colorado River basin states feared that California would co-opt all the available water from the Colorado. This was a legitimate fear in light of the western water right doctrine of prior appropriation.

The doctrine of prior appropriation held that whoever first developed a water source for beneficial use held permanent rights to that water, hence the phrase "first in time, first in right." In 1922 the Supreme Court codified this doctrine in law in Wyoming v. California. Delegates from all the basin states embarked on a series of negotiations to develop a system of water allocation that was equitable to all the states that bordered the Colorado. After nearly a year, the Colorado River Compact was signed. The basin was divided into the Upper and Lower Basins, with Lee's Ferry, Arizona as the demarcation point. [251] The Upper Basin states were New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. The Lower Basin included California, Nevada, and Arizona. The only state that did not ratify the Compact was Arizona, which was still afraid of California's consumptive nature. Arizona delegates knew that the Compact only protected Arizona from the Upper Basin states and said nothing about California appropriating Arizona's water rights. Regardless of Arizona's hesitation, Congress approved the Compact for the six signatory states in 1928, and construction on Boulder Dam began in 1931. As a result, the Colorado River was regulated in both law and practice. But California's voracious appetite for water loomed large in the minds of Upper Basin state leaders. How were they going to be sure their allocations from the Colorado were secure? The only answer was to develop the river through a system of dams to the benefit of the Upper Basin. [252]

The controversy over Rainbow Bridge and Glen Canyon Dam blossomed alongside the plans to develop the upper reaches of the Colorado River. Immediately following World War II, the nation teemed with returning veterans. Part of President Truman's "Fair Deal" involved federally sponsored development projects which put many of those veterans to work. The Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) was the byproduct of the post-World War II fever to develop natural resources coupled with the Upper Basin states' needs for secure water rights. The Bureau of Reclamation proposed that it and the Upper Basin states construct a series of dams along the Green, Yampa, and Colorado Rivers. Two of those dams were of particular import to the story of Rainbow Bridge. At the southern end of the chain were plans to dam Glen Canyon, then an obscure and seldom visited series of canyons just north of Rainbow Bridge. At the northern end was Echo Park Canyon. The dam at Echo Park was planned for a stretch of canyon inside the boundaries of Dinosaur National Monument (NM). Dinosaur NM was authorized in 1915 but was expanded to over 200,000 acres by presidential proclamation on July 14, 1938. The expanded area included the confluence of the Green River and the Yampa River—the proposed site of Echo Park dam. [253]

Echo Park Canyon
Figure 25 Echo Park Canyon (Alex and Dorothy Brownlee Collection, NAU.PH. 93.37.20, Cline Library, Northern Arizona University)

Using the defeat at Hetch Hetchy as their battle cry, preservation groups rallied around stopping Echo Park. David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club, and Olaus J. Murie and Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society, launched a public relations assault on federal and state leaders. Letter writing campaigns, books featuring Dinosaur NM, and direct pressure wherever possible were the weapons of the new environmentalism. The issue was the same at Echo Park as in Yosemite decades before: preservationists believed that the integrity of the national park system hinged on keeping every possible unit free from commercial or civic resource development. Brower, Murie, and Zahniser were not alone in their fight. NPS Director Newton P. Drury adamantly opposed building dams inside national monuments. But the CRSP was a foregone conclusion to Michael Strauss, then Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation. [254] Strauss actively pursued the favor of Secretary of the Interior Oscar Chapman, and Chapman's successor, Douglass McKay. The administrative pressure to complete the CRSP in some form was too great for Drury. He resigned in early 1951. [255]

After Drury's resignation, Arthur Demaray became Director the Park Service. Demaray's position on the CRSP was dictated by his professional commitment to the Secretary of the Interior. Whatever his personal opinions on reclamation projects might have been, Director Demaray wanted the Park Service to be part of Interior's larger plan for western water management. The infighting of to the previous directorate was not part of Demaray's leadership. Conrad L. Wirth, Demaray's successor, expressed much the same tone. While Director Wirth opposed Echo Park dam, he followed Secretary Chapman's instructions to forbid NPS employees from publicly criticizing the CRSP or any of its provisions. Even in 1955, when the Echo Park unit of the project was in serious jeopardy, Wirth made it plain to all Park Service personnel that he would not tolerate their criticism of either the CRSP or the Secretary's policies related to reclamation in general. [256] Some historians have made the judgement that this policy line constituted apathy by the Park Service, abrogating responsibility for derailing Echo Park Dam to environmentalists. On the contrary, the decisions made for the Park Service by the Secretary of the Interior during this controversy demonstrates how complex the playing field was for various federal agencies. The Secretary was faced with balancing the competing missions of two agencies under his direct charge, with Reclamation dedicated to resource development and the Park Service committed to resource protection. [257] This complexity played out in the Director's decision to join forces with Reclamation in the attempt to protect Rainbow Bridge from encroachment by Lake Powell.

For the next four years preservationists waged all-out war against everyone who supported the CRSP: state leaders from all the Upper Basin states, Reclamation and Interior officials, and every key member of Congress. Under the direction of the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, as well as the newly formed Council of Conservationists, the campaign was grass roots. In truth, popular support for the Echo Park Dam among Colorado and Utah residents was deep and widespread. But Upper Basin legislators were attacked from extra-regional directions as the campaign against Echo Park Dam went national. The Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society solicited pressure from all of their members. Residents of states as geographically diverse as Wisconsin, Washington, and Alaska voiced their opinions about an environmental issue that was totally removed from their own local concerns. [258] In the fight over Echo Park, environmentalism blossomed into a philosophy that did not depend on geographic proximity for its moral suasion.

As pressure mounted against building all the projects in the proposed CRSP, Brower and the Council of Conservationists faced a dilemma. Though very few people had seen Glen Canyon, there was a general understanding of how big the dam would be if constructed. Many participants in the debate realized that when water backed up behind the dam it might encroach on the boundaries of Rainbow Bridge NM, maybe even to the bridge itself. The Utah Committee For A Glen Canyon National Monument briefly acknowledged this threat in a written statement to Congress in 1954:

As previously mentioned, the elevation of the maximum level of the proposed lake [behind the dam] is 3707'. According to the figures of the Bureau of Reclamation, this is 53' higher than the canyon bed at Rainbow Bridge, which is 3654' above sea level. This dam will result in the submergence of the lower end of the National Monument a hundred feet. Parts of Rainbow Bridge National Monument will thus be flooded whenever the lake is within 100' of capacity. [259]

Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay wrote to Brower to assure him that the Bureau of Reclamation would take all necessary steps to protect Rainbow Bridge, including a barrier dam one mile down canyon from the bridge. [260] McKay also indicated that protective measures would be part of the CRSP's authorizing legislation. In fact, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation recognized early on that protecting Rainbow Bridge would be necessary. In November 1954, a Memorandum of Understanding between NPS and Reclamation acknowledged the "problem of protecting Rainbow Bridge when the Glen Canyon Dam is constructed" and the need to look toward minimizing future risks to the bridge. By 1954 it no longer mattered if members of the Park Service were opposed to damming Glen Canyon. The simple fact was that dam would be built, and the Park Service needed to take steps to protect Rainbow Bridge. To this end, the Park Service became actively involved in researching and planning what would be involved in preventing Lake Powell waters from entering the monument. [261]

The Congressional hearings surrounding the CRSP included discussion of the possible impacts to Rainbow Bridge from damming Glen Canyon. The Bureau of Reclamation anticipated this criticism. E.O. Larsen, regional director for the Bureau, testified that at a maximum capacity of 26 million acre feet, the lake behind the dam would back up into Bridge Canyon, even under Rainbow Bridge itself. But the water would never elevate to the abutments of the bridge. [262] Various Reclamation officials also testified about contingency funds in the dam's budget for construction of three protective measures: a barrier dam below the bridge, a diversion tunnel above the bridge (Bridge Creek to another canyon), and a catch basin at the tunnel outlet. [263] Though the plans for protective measures were discussed in painful detail, the CRSP hearings in March 1955 revealed two important facts. First, the Bureau of Reclamation was shifting its focus from the losing battle at Echo Park to the less controversial Glen Canyon. Second, the hearings revealed the need for and promise of protection for Rainbow Bridge.

The Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation actively pursued plans for protective measures during 1955. In May of that year, key Reclamation and Park Service personnel attended a field study and planning meeting. The group traveled to Rainbow Bridge by horse as well as various sites proposed for protective structures. They assessed various locations for a diversion tunnel and barrier dam, visiting four potential sites during the three-day study. The trip yielded numerous alternatives that were ultimately forwarded to many Park Service and Reclamation directors. Given the testimony of Reclamation officials before Congress, NPS personnel believed that protective measures would be constructed and based on that belief took an active role in preparations and planning. [264] The report represented the Park Service's firm belief that they could prevent Lake Powell water from entering the monument. It also revealed a definite opinion regarding the outcome of the CRSP. Leslie P. Arnberger, then a Park Service naturalist, and Harold A. Marsh, NPS landscape architect, wrote to the General Superintendent for Southwestern National Monuments: "we suggest that reconsideration be given to the proposed height and location of the Glen Canyon Dam. Either a new location downstream or a decrease in the height should lower the level of the reservoir to the point where there would be no adverse effect on Rainbow Bridge." [265] However, if Reclamation could not be convinced to move the dam, the Park Service was committed to protecting Rainbow Bridge. This commitment was expressed in numerous memos as the plans to protect the bridge were evaluated over the entire summer of 1955.

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Last Updated: 07-Feb-2003