“Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?” That was the headline on a full page advertisement that the Sierra Club put into major newspapers back in 1966. These “Grand Canyon Battle Ads” were meant to rally the public against two proposed dam projects on the Colorado River. Under the clever headline, the ad takes a grandiose, almost biblical tone. “Earth began four billion years ago and Man two million. The Age of Technology, on the other hand, is hardly a hundred years old…” the ad says. There is a timeline running up the middle of the text, showing the history of the world in geological scale. It goes on to explain how it is “hasty” for “Man to think of directing his fascinating new tools toward altering irrevocably the forces which made him.” The Sierra Club, under the leadership of the famous David Brower, was clearly taking this fight seriously.

The high water mark for the proposed Echo Park Dam, another “Win” in this notorious horse-trade

And they won. Yes, they won the dam wars! How often can we say that about environmental fights? Not so often (especially these days, it seems). The two proposed dams, one in Marble Canyon and the other in Bridge Canyon, would not be built, and the Colorado would run free (at least along that stretch).

Their victory was a boon to the environmental movement, and to the Sierra Club especially. Thousands of new members joined the organization. It was an occasion that is still celebrated today as one of the great victories of environmentalism in the American West, a literal watershed moment. And like all moments of celebrated history, the story is more complicated than it is often portrayed.

A recent article by Taylor Graham named Complicating the Narrative, which is published on the website for the upcoming film, Glen Canyon Rediscovered, explains how, even though the “defense of Grand Canyon was admirable and a great victory….it also resulted in the dam builders shifting their gaze to a more easily-exploited community.” That community was the Native Navajo and Hopi community of Black Mesa.

Strip Mining on Black Mesa @ Peabody Coal Mine. Photo Credit: Doc Searls

After managing to block the proposed dams in Marble Canyon and Bridge Canyon, the Sierra Club shifted focus to other battles, and the Department of the Interior also shifted focus. They had been working on the hydroelectric projects along the Colorado in the hopes of powering a major water project for the booming Arizona cities of Phoenix and Tucson. So, even though their dams were a no-go, their desire for cheap electricity was strong as ever.

The DOI, under the leadership of Stewart Udall (Yes, the same Udall family dynasty that gave us Mark and Tom), eventually found “a new, less-controversial way to power the delivery of Arizona’s water.” It turns out Peabody coal company was already trying to get at the seams of coal under the Navajo and Hopi communities on Black Mesa. The DOI ended up working “closely with Peabody over the next few years to ensure the mining at Black Mesa and the construction of the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) on the shores of Lake Powell went smoothly. The DOI also made sure that the new power plant, built on land leased from the Navajo Nation, would supply energy directly to the Central Arizona Project.”

Because Black Mesa wasn’t considered the ‘Sistine Chapel’ by prominent, white environmentalists like David Brower, the coal mining operations there got far less national attention than the Grand Canyon dam projects. Thus, as Graham puts it, “through the destruction of their land, exploitation of their resources, and continued economic immobility, the Navajo Nation ultimately paid the price for the growth of Phoenix and other Western metropolises.”

This is too often the case. Already marginalized communities, like those on the Standing Rock Reservation or the Tohono O’odham Nation, pay the longest-lasting and most severe price for our ever persistent urban development. Pipelines pass through their land, walls are built across their valleys, uranium mines are left unremediated in their mountains.

Holiday River Expeditions recognizes that, as much as we may want to keep our rivers free and pristine, this should never come at such a high cost to other communities. “While Holiday has always been a leader in interpretation and river education, allowing our guests to fully appreciate the wild world around them, we recognize the persistent need to deepen our understanding of this landscape, the politics at play, and in particular the indigenous peoples whose traditional lands we boarder and row through,” said Trip Director Lauren Wood.

I know how spending time in the environmental justice movement can leave you drought stricken, dried up and cracking at the edges from a lack of that nourishing liquid: hope. Or, if you are not dried out, you can end up drowning in fear, grief, anger, cynicism. There is no shortage of inconvenient truths. But victory, that unmistakable feeling of having some movement in the movement, the feeling that we are, perhaps, changing the world, that can be very scarce.

So we need to celebrate our wins when we have them, even if they are fragile. We should revel in the gathering of tribes at Standing Rock, in the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument, in the recent kayak blockade. Celebration helps us to solidify our convictions, to fight like hell against the undoing of our work. But even as we celebrate, we must remember the battles that we have lost, the people we have overlooked, the communities still in struggle. And we must keep learning, always.


 Easton Smith is a Local Wasatch Front resident and writer.   He spends his time community organizing, rock-climbing and playin’ some mean banjo.  For more writing from Easton, check out his organizing collective’s blog “Brine Waves” here or stay tuned for future loggings in River Currents.