Last week, Jerold Irwin "Jerry" Mander died at 86 in his Hawai'i home. Known recently as anti-globalization thinker and critic of capitalism, Mander was a Jewish adman with a Wharton economics degree who brought brilliance and sophistication to the San Francisco counterculture. If it was happening, he was there. And he just might have saved the Grand Canyon. Here's how it went down.
In 1957, David Brower, the man John McPhee dubbed "the Archdruid" rafted through Glen Canyon with his family. The trip was life-changing, but instead of joy, gliding along the canyon's sandstone walls filled Brower with regret. He had been instrumental in the destruction that was heading straight toward the desert canyon.
“Drifting here, you learned to perceive, not to preconceive, what makes a land beautiful,” he wrote in text that accompanied photographs by Phillip Hyde in the Sierra Club Bulletin:
Beauty is where you see it and you saw it often where the big river, thin-edged with green, slid along under the pastel tapestries. An old river had built the stone grain by grain, and the new river was shaping it— imperceptibly aided by artists who left long ago. You didn’t quite catch the river in the act of sculpturing, but the color of the Colorado assured you that creation was still going on...Down in the main gorge the vista was fine enough, but what really counted was what you could seek out in a hundred tributary clefts.
Georgie White knew when the big boats should be tied up and people should start walking, and you learned to know Warm Springs, the silence of Moki Canyon, and the strangeness of Hole-in-the- Rock. There were the antiquities that you discovered, and some that would never be...High above the noonday twilight of Hidden Passage you might have looked small but you felt big. For all the massiveness and height, your own good feet could put you there and had. There was time to rest in shady silence, to wonder how, to begin to understand why, once again, to know yourself.
Brower was aghast at his role in the canyon’s destruction — destruction he had not just allowed, but promoted in his effort to stop the relentless march of industrialization driven by massive water projects across the American West from encroaching into the national park system. In the early 1950s, Western water honchos, including longtime Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Floyd Dominy, the J. Edgar Hoover of western water, proposed a series of reservoirs and two massive dams, one to be built in Dinosaur National Monument, part of the national parks, and a second in Glen Canyon. Alarmed at the precedent that would be set by allowing development in a national monument, Brower and others had compromised, trading away little-known Glen Canyon and allowing five additional dams on the Upper Colorado River, to convince Dominy and others to ditch the plans to build a dam in Dinosaur National Monument.
Brower was not alone in his ignorance of the canyon. Few people had explored it, although it was known and prized by a select group of Southwest bohemians and river runners, people like singer Katie Lee and jack Mormon river guide Ken Sleight, the prototype for the character of Seldom Seen Slim in what would become Edward Abbey's cult novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Once Brower saw Glen Canyon, the experience would change him forever, transforming the most 20th century's most revered environmentalist from a political machine to a moral leader.
Katie Lee: The Original Desert Goddess (1957)
“The body in these photographs is thirty-seven years old - one that has been hiking freely and in tune with nature for at least half of those years. When I met Glen Canyon it was love at first sight - a place far from the inbred taboos of our society - closer to a dreamland than to reality. I have never posed as a model and am not doing so here… only doing what I always did in Glen Canyon - climbing, dancing, walking, touching, talking to the stone, swimming in the river, lying in the shallows, sliding down the falls, crawling through ruins, inching up crevasses, hanging from tree limbs, covering myself with mud, playing, singing, living with the canyon. I can always tell when a model is photographed in a place she’s never seen or experienced before; it’s in body language that can’t be hidden.”
“Glen Canyon died in 1963 and I was partly responsible for its death,” Brower would write in the introduction to the Sierra Club photography book The Place No One Knew. Before he wrote those words, he made one last attempt to correct his mistake. On January 21, 1963, he spent the morning fidgeting in the anteroom of the Secretary of the Interior like a kid outside the principal’s office. He wanted to ask Stewart Udall to delay sealing the diversion tunnel at Glen Canyon Dam. If the tunnel was sealed on schedule, tourists would be able to row their boats up to Rainbow Bridge, a natural arch made of eroded desert sandstone, despite the government’s pledge to protect it. Millions of dollars and untold hours of human labor were all pressing the project forward. It was hopeless but Brower had to try.
Brower waited and waited. With the death of Howard Zahniser, the magisterial head of The Wilderness Society, he had become the most powerful man in the environmental movement. But he waited in vain. Stewart Udall refused to see him. Udall was busy preparing for a press conference. He was getting ready to announce a plan that would make a few feet of water at Rainbow Bridge look like kid stuff.
Floyd Dominy, the cigar-chomping chief of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, had gone back to his original idea: constructing two big cash-register dams in the Grand Canyon. They would be part of yet another Bureau of Reclamation behemoth: the Pacific Southwest Water Plan. And U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, the conservation conscience of President Kennedy’s cabinet, was going to let him. The Pacific Southwest Water Plan promised to bring a hefty increase in Colorado River water to Udall’s home state of Arizona.
Udall may have been a conservationist, but he was also a native son, the descendant of Mormon pioneers who had struck it rich in an arid land. One year before the founding of Salt Lake City, Udall’s great-grandfather, John D. Lee, had traveled to New Mexico to learn irrigation techniques from the Mexicans who had been living there since the 1500s. He reported back to Brigham Young, helping to make possible the Mormon empire in Utah.
As Marc Reisner reported in his definitive book on Western water, Cadillac Desert, the two big dams on the Grand Canyon were "cash-register" dams. They would pay for the construction of two dams on the Trinity River in northern California, which would supply water to Los Angeles and the agricultural San Joaquin Valley.
It was only by creating a new supply of water for southern California that the Colorado could be diverted to the long-awaited Central Arizona Project, a series of dams, canals, and pumping stations that would siphon off Arizona’s portion of the Colorado River. Finally, Arizona would get its share out of the Colorado.
Udall was not entirely enthusiastic about damming the canyon, but as an Arizona home boy, he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to get his state in on the Colorado River bonanza before it went bust. Stewart Udall understood the quasi-religious significance of water in a dry land. A modern-day John D. Lee, Udall had traveled to the faraway city of Washington, D.C. Now, he was ready to do his duty to the clan.
Ten years ago I was testifying in favor of a higher Glen Canyon Dam and I wish I had been struck dead at the time.
In the afternoon, Brower joined the crowd in the conference room. He sat stunned as Udall announced the new water project. Several years before, when novelist Wallace Stegner questioned the sacrifice of Glen Canyon, Brower had argued practicality. He had talked about the conservation movement’s limited resources. He had talked about compromise, about being reasonable. Never again would he make these arguments.
After Stewart Udall's shocking announcement, Brower took the conservationist movement into unmarked territory. The lobbying blitz to save the Grand Canyon would form the character of the modem environmental movement.
Like his fellow aesthetes John Muir and, twenty years later, the gonzo hippie cowboys of Earth First! (“Poetry must be in advance of action” read a quote from the French Symbolist poet Rimbaud in the Earth First! newsletter) Brower’s evolving political style combined confrontational politics with highly creative propaganda.
In many ways, the Grand Canyon debate was similar to the fight over the dams in Dinosaur National Monument. Once again, the integrity of the national park system was threatened. But the scale was different, and so was the symbolism.
The two proposed dam sites, Marble Gorge and Bridge Canyon, actually were located in Grand Canyon National Monument, which surrounded Grand Canyon National Park, but monuments are part of the park system. The dams would have backed up water ninety-three miles, flooding the monument’s bottom. But they also would have affected the park itself in two ways. Lower Havasu Creek, which Reisner calls the canyon’s most beautiful side stream, would have been completely flooded. The dams also would have submerged Lava Falls, the biggest, roughest white water in the canyon. The entire ecosystem of the Grand Canyon would have been altered by the dams.
For the empire builders, the opportunity was worth the fight. The Pacific Southwest Water Plan was truly grandiose, even by the standards of the mid-twentieth century. It was enough to keep even the hard-drinking, whore-mongering BuRec Commissioner Floyd Dominy interested in a job that was threatening to get stale. In addition to nailing down the Arizona situation, it called for two major water projects in Utah and construction of the Hooker Dam, which would inundate part of the great conservationist Aldo Leopold’s legacy, New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness.
As it turned out, it was not the job that was getting stale; it was Dominy. He misjudged the temperament of the American people. Even some of the industrial megamachine’s high priests were finding that they preferred hot, harsh canyons to pork-barrel water projects. The Pacific Southwest Water Project marked the first time that a dam failed to win the full support of its state delegation. Wildcard libertarian Republican Barry Goldwater flat out refused to back a dam in Marble Canyon, where he had
traveled six times. Nuking the North Vietnamese was one thing, but blowing away prime cowboy myth-making apparatus was another.
Marble Canyon was exactly what a canyon should be, said Goldwater. According to Russell Martin's A Story That Stands Like a Dam: “Marble Canyon...for reasons the senator had a hard time making abundantly clear, was different. Its scenic beauty, its grandeur, its towering cliffs of Redwall limestone surely ought to be preserved in their pristine state...Reflecting on Marble Canyon, the senator said, made him long for the future day when new technologies would make it unnecessary to dam any more free-flowing rivers.”
For David Brower, after the Glen Canyon debacle and the overpowering guilt and regret that ensued, the fight was existential. The engineer's son drafted a trio of MIT boys, a mathematician, an economist, and a nuclear engineer, to explain to Congress why the Central Arizona Project could just as easily run on coal or nuclear energy. Both were thought to be panaceas in those naive days. Even Floyd Dominy was forced to testify that it was “theoretically possible” to build the Central Arizona Project without damming the Grand Canyon.
Brower’s campaign was not limited to Washington, D.C. While he testified to Congress, Brower simultaneously staged an unprecedented media campaign and grassroots lobbying effort. These were the glory days of grassroots political activism. Sierra Club members around the country argued their cause with editorial boards of their local newspapers. Club publications carried citizen alerts, asking members to write to their congressmen and senators. Thousands of letters poured in, then hundreds of thousands.
It wasn’t hard to capture the American imagination when you had something as iconic as the Grand Canyon. In Washington, Brower entered copies of The Place No One Knew into the Congressional record, along with a new book, Time and the River Flowing: Grand Canyon. He loaned out copies of a Sierra Club film on Glen Canyon. When questioned on his previous advocacy of Glen Canyon Dam Brower replied that the current opposition to Grand Canyon dams represented an “evolution in our own thinking.”
“Ten years ago I was testifying in favor of a higher Glen Canyon Dam and I wish I had been struck dead at the time,” he said. “We found out how wrong we had been. I would just stress that over these years our own thinking has evolved, and I still hope that Mr. Udall’s will.”
Well, Mr. Udall’s did, but it took more work on Brower’s part. After the hearings ended, conservationists got a tip that dam supporters might try to railroad through a piece of legislation. Brower was convinced that his opponents were running scared. He decided to press his advantage.
Eliot Porter and Georgia O'Keefe in Glen Canyon 1961
On June 9, 1966, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times all carried full- page ads placed by the Sierra Club. Each paper split its press run so that Brower could see which idea worked better, his straightforward open letter to Stewart Udall, or the ad written by San Francisco consultants Howard Gossage and Jerry Mander.
It was Mander and Gossage’s splashy ad, hands down, “NOW ONLY YOU CAN SAVE THE GRAND CANYON FROM BEING FLOODED . . . FOR PROFIT” read the ad. The body copy went into more detail, but the ending came back to the issue’s emotional core. “Remember, with all the complexities of Washington politics and Arizona politics, and the ins and outs of committees and procedures, there is only one simple, incredible issue here: This time it’s the Grand Canyon they want to flood. The Grand Canyon.”
Response to the ad was so overwhelming that the ad itself became news. Jerry Mander had taken the sophistication of New York advertising to the cause of the saving the American West. The Bronx-born Mander was the son of Jewish immigrants who ascended to the middle class. Once the family moved to Yonkers, the young Mander's ambition had been to become a golf pro. Instead, he earned a bachelor's degree in economics at Columbia and a master's in international economics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. That background that would serve him well as a social critic, and ultimately, as a prescient critic of international capitalism.
Mander later said that working in advertising made him a rebel, because seeing what advertising does to "the system" inspired him to use the tools of advertising in reverse. After moving to San Francisco in the 1960s, Mander had worked with Fillmore West promoter Bill Graham and Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand on Ken Kesey and the Merry Prankster's Trips Festival ("...while LSD was certainly to be had at the Trips Festival, the event suggested larger interests than just blowing your mind on drugs. The Trips Festival proposed that LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs were tools, technologies for probing new understandings of the self and society, individuality and community," wrote historian Michael Kramer.)
Mander would become known as a critic of technology and globalization, influencing the debate with his books Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television and In the Absence of the Sacred. In his last book, published in 2013, The Capitalism Papers, he would argue against capitalism as a viable foundation for the economy.
Like Edward Abbey and John DePuy, Mander brought the tools of a first-rate education, plus serious professionalism, to his subversion. The ads he produced with his partner, Howard Gossage, worked so well that they infuriated the powerful Arizona congressman Morris Udall, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall’s younger brother. Mo Udall thought the ad campaign was unfair to his brother. He had a point: Stewart Udall had been responsible for setting aside a great deal of wilderness in the West.
Mo Udall still hadn’t cooled off by cocktail hour, when he had arranged to meet Sheldon Cohen, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service at a hotel bar. Less than twenty-four hours later — four o’clock in the afternoon on June 10, according to Russell Martin’s account in A Story That Stands Like a Dam — the Sierra Club received a letter from the IRS threatening its tax-exempt status. The letter itself became front-page news.
Despite the misgivings of the Sierra Club board of directors, Brower was buoyant. Hell, this was better publicity than the club had ever been flush enough to purchase. A second ad followed in July. This time, Mander and Gossage outdid themselves. “SHOULD WE ALSO FLOOD THE SISTINE CHAPEL SO TOURISTS CAN GET NEAR THE CEILING?” ran the full-page ad in The New York Times.
After decades of pussyfooting around, the aesthete conservationists were taking on Babbittry full force. The momentum was unmistakable.
It's worth noting that the ad contained no image. The documentary feel of these ads was effective at a time when the written word had authority. Eventually, this innovative approach would be, as the 60s folks liked to say, co-opted by The Man. Decades later, corporations would produce similar-looking "advertorial" and "paid content" that struggling publications would embrace in a desperate attempt to survive in the digital era. This was certainly the opposite of what Mander and his partner Howard Gossage, a friend of Marshall McLuhan's, would have intended.
Back in the Sixties, these iconic ads sealed the deal, winning over the all-important East Coast establishment. According to Marc Reisner, the outcome was clear to everyone but Floyd Dominy, who was “bullheaded, willful,” and “obsessed with defeating Brower.”
The politics were stalemated until early 1967, when the Western water czar was forced to leave Washington on his annual inspection of international water projects being built with U.S. assistance. After Dominy’s plane lifted off the tarmac, Udall directed his aides to come up with an alternative to the Grand Canyon dams. Stewart Udall's main concern was revving up enough energy for the Central Arizona Project. To get the water to Arizona, engineers had to figure out how to pump it over a 1,200-foot mountain pass to the secretary's home state of Arizona. The secretary’s advisers desperately searched for a politically acceptable alternative.
The answer they found would have its own unintended consequences. Instead of building the dams, the federal government would help fund construction of the Navajo Generating Station, one of six enormous coal plants planned for the Four Comers region of the Southwest. In return, a portion of the plant’s generating capacity would be used for hauling water over the mountains.
Six dirty coal plants would be perched at the edge of canyon country, on the high plateaus of the Four Comers area in the land of the Navajo and the Hopi. They would pollute a region known for the clarity of its air, the brightness of the blue sky that framed its deep-red mesas.
There would be another fight, and this time, the environmentalists would lose. But at the time, the deal felt like victory. Even Dominy recognized a fait accompli. His only recorded comment was, “My secretary turned chickenshit on me.”
The political deal turned out to be an historic mistake, yet in the context of the time, defeating the water lords felt like a turning point. Sinclair Lewis’s small-minded Babbitt the businessman was no longer absolute monarch in America. Or so it seemed.
While Babbitt would return with a vengeance in the 1980s, the outpouring of public sentiment in the Dinosaur Monument and Grand Canyon battles was a definitive mark that the frontier had receded. The United States had become a technological society where 80 percent of the population dreams of a rural existence but lives in cities. Americans’ surroundings had changed but their ideals had not. Jefferson’s agrarian model, an individualistic utopia of yeoman farmers in which nature provides the fabric of existence, was still the goal of most Americans. As they felt it slipping away, they clutched even harder.
Edward Abbey was at the crest of this change in consciousness. Having grown up hunting and fishing in the woods of Pennsylvania, he embodied both the new and the old American outdoorsman. Occasionally these impulses were contradictory; but when it came to technology. Abbey was wholehearted.
“One should admit at the outset to a certain bias,” he wrote in “The Damnation of a Canyon,” in the essay collection Beyond the Wall. “Indeed I am a ‘butterfly chaser, googly eyed bleeding heart and wild conservative.’ I take a dim view of dams; I find it hard to learn to love cement; I am poorly impressed by concrete aggregates and statistics in the cubic tons. But in this weakness I am not alone, for I belong to that ever-growing number of Americans, probably a good majority now, who have become aware that a fully industrialized, thoroughly urbanized, elegantly computerized social system is not suitable for human habitation. Great for machines, yes. But unfit for people.”