Penthouse Retrospective

by Christopher Manes Originally Published: May, 1990

Green Rage | 30 Years Ago This Month

A growing number of radical environmentalists are literally using guerilla warfare to defend our planet.

Penthouse Magazine - May, 1990Even Then, The Evironment

On the chill spring morning of March 21, 1981, 75 people drove into the visitors-center parking lot of Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam. They were not part of the usual crowd of tourists and boat owners come to marvel at the huge waterworks, ponder statistics on metric tons of concrete, or admire the vast power-plant reservoir, inaccurately, if not disingenuously, named Lake Powell by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. On the contrary, they were more interested in what had been here before the dam, what the dam had in fact taken from them. Under 500 feet of reservoir water lay what had once been one of the most beautiful stretches of the Colorado Gorge, the golden heart of the canyonlands, with tamarisk and willow thickets, waterfalls and plunge pools, hanging gardens of orchids and maidenhair ferns that found refuge in the pink sandstone recesses while mastodons still walked the continent during the Ice Age. There had been egrets and ibises wading in the shallows, beaver, deer, and coyotes in the cotton-wood glades. There had been that abundance of life only possible, or perhaps only fully appreciated, along a desert river. It was for the sake of this submerged, half-forgotten natural world under the bone-white monument to progress that these people came to demonstrate their displeasure.

Among the crowd were Dave Foreman, Mike Roselle, and Howie Wolke. Less than a year before, during a hiking trip to the remote Pinacate Desert of Mexico, these three environmental activists had decided to form Earth First!, a self-proclaimed radical environmental group with an obligatory exclamation point and a motto: “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth.” It was, in fact, directly after this meeting that Roselle and Wolke stopped by the dam on their way home to wonder if this might not be the place to put their motto into practice for the first time.

Their choice was inspired in no small part by another member of the crowd: Edward Abbey. Writer, raconteur, amiable misanthrope, and eminence grise of the environmental movement in the Southwest, Abbey had written a novel in 1975, The Monkey Wrench Gang, which told the story of a group of raucous, environmentally minded saboteurs who rollicked through the Desert Southwest burning bulldozers, tearing down billboards, and above all else dreaming of blowing up Glen Canyon Dam. The fictional aspirations of Abbey’s characters were about to come to fruition — of a sort.

The dam occupied a special place not only along the Colorado River, but also in the history of the American environmental movement. Anxious not to appear “unreasonable,” the large national environmental organizations, and the Sierra Club in particular, reached a compromise with the Bureau of Reclamation in the early 1960s, in essence preventing construction of a dam in Dinosaur National Monument in exchange for allowing one to be built in Glen Canyon. To acquiesce in the destruction of the world’s most magnificent system of red-rock canyons without a fight stuck in the craw of many grass-roots environmentalists and began an estrangement that culminated in the rise of more militant groups like Earth First!.

As if to rub salt in the environmental movement’s wounds, the Bureau of Reclamation celebrated its victory with a media campaign that included the publication of a book in which the bureau breathlessly described the reservoir as the “jewel of the Colorado.” The book was filled with snipes at environmentalists and poetic expostulations on the mastering of nature by man, including this sub-Tennysonian stanza by the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner himself, Floyd Dominy:

“To have a deep blue lake Where no lake was before Seems to bring man A little closer to God.”

“In this case,” wrote Abbey in mock response a few years later, “… about 500 feet closer. Eh, Floyd?”

Thus, to many grass-roots environmentalists Glen Canyon Dam was more than just an ugly mass of concrete and steel profaning the stark majesty of the canyonlands; it represented what was fundamentally wrong with the country’s conservation policies: arrogant government officials motivated by a quasi-religious zeal to industrialize the natural world, and a diffident bureaucratic leadership in the mainstream environmental organizations who more or less willingly collaborated in this process.

With howls and banners, but without permits or permission, the people in the parking lot began a demonstration calling for the dismantling of Glen Canyon Dam. The National Park Service officials overseeing the recreational facility were visibly nervous: They had never heard of any environmental group supporting the removal of a dam, and nothing in their agency’s philosophy had ever prepared them for such a demand. From their perspective it was madness, pure and simple, to undo a technological “improvement” of the landscape.

The police had somehow gotten word that there might be trouble from a new environmental group, and therefore they were already present at the scene in force. Most of the security, however, was prudently concentrated in the belly of the dam, where the generators and other vulnerable machinery were housed.

Ignore the environment for long enough, and it may protect itself with a Green Rage. The environmentalist simmer will eventually boil. Do nothing for long enough, and saving the planet will become a multifaceted active confrontation.

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