The Blog


12:00 AM, Sep 23, 1996 • By ROBERT H. NELSON
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In a speech to Trout Unlimited, Bruce Babbitt announced that he "would love to be the first Secretary of the Interior to tear down a really large dam." It looks like the secretary may get his wish. Congress in 1992 authorized the dismantling of two dams on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state. And the Clinton administration is now asking Congress for the $ 111 million it will take to get the job done.

If there were lots of money to go around, this would likely be a reasonable expenditure. But the National Park System is facing a funding crisis, including a backlog of needed construction maintenance estimated by the Park Service to cost $ 4 billion. Ranger-education programs were canceled this summer at parks across the country, trails are not being maintained, employee housing is falling apart, and other major problems are endemic throughout the parks.

Spending $ 111 million could make a big difference in all those areas. So why is removing the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams a higher priority for Babbitt? The answer tells us a lot about the thinking of the environmental movement and changing ideas of economic progress in American life.

There was a time when a dam was considered a great human achievement. Dams provided water to make the desert bloom. They provided electricity to light the cities. They became for many virtual cathedrals of progress, inspiring a religious awe by their very presence. Dams visibly demonstrated the new power of mankind to remake the world by controlling nature for human benefit.

When the artists of socialist realism came to choose a subject, a scene showing the building of a large dam was a favored motif. Woody Guthrie sang ballads about the construction in the late 1930s of Grand Coulee Dam, then the largest in the world:


Uncle Sam needs wool, Uncle Sam needs wheat

Uncle Sam needs houses 'n' stuff to eat

Uncle Sam needs water 'n' power dams

Americans began to turn against dams in the 1950s. The Bureau of Reclamation sought to build one in Dinosaur National Monument in northwest Colorado, threatening to inundate portions of a unit of the National Park System. This sacrilege spurred to action David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club and a man who once said, "I hate all dams, large and small." Mobilizing sportsmen, wilderness enthusiasts, park advocates, and others, Brower pioneered the modern tactics of environmental activism and in the process defeated the mighty Bureau of Reclamation.

As John McPhee has written, for the environmental movement there has always been "something special about dams, something . . . disproportionately and metaphysically sinister." The building of a dam involves an act of " humiliating nature" -- and hence of outright "evil."

As dams have declined in public favor, a new type of cathedral of a new national civic faith has emerged. As defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964, a wilderness is a place "untrammeled by man." The symbolism of the dam is turned on its head; a sacred site no longer represents human mastery of nature but the very absence of any human impact.

Reed Noss, editor of a well-respected environmental journal called Conservation Biology, said recently that the environmental movement must bring about a fundamental change in the "prevailing attitude of humans toward nature" in order to save the environment. Human power to change nature has become too great; the most urgent task now is to protect nature from human intrusions. Someone like Hubert Humphrey would have had a hard time understanding all this. For Humphrey, like most liberals of his time, science and economic progress were the solution to crime, family breakdown, poverty, virtually all of society's problems. Yet for many of the new environmental cadre, progress is not the solution but the problem.

In April, the membership of the Sierra Club voted by two to one to seek a ban on all timber harvesting in the national forests of the United States, which put timber harvesting in the same moral category as dams. Reflecting the real impact of such thinking, national forest harvests have fallen by 66 percent over the past decade. Yet the national forests represent 40 percent of Idaho, 21 percent of California, and 19 percent of the land area of the West as a whole. Public timber has been a main economic base for many rural economies. So much for ordinary people and ordinary jobs -- the wellspring of Humphrey-style liberalism and the subject of progressive politics for a century.