The controversy over the proposed Echo Park dam in the mid-1950s was a crucial episode in the conservation history of Colorado and the West and proved to be a milestone in American environmental history. Following years of debate, the US Congress decided not to authorize the dam, signifying the growing public interest in national parks and monuments and in the protection of wild places.
Echo Park is a magnificent scenic canyon flanked by enormous sandstone cliffs within the heart of Dinosaur National Monument, which spans the boundary between Colorado and Utah. It sits at the confluence of the southward-flowing Green River and the westward-flowing Yampa River. The national monument, established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 to protect a cliff of dinosaur fossils, was expanded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 to encompass the twisting river canyons and Echo Park at their center.
In the years after World War II, a period of economic growth in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming, the Bureau of Reclamation issued a blueprint for several large dams along the upper Colorado River and its tributaries, including the Green and Gunnison Rivers. Among the proposed dam sites were Flaming Gorge, Glen Canyon, and Echo Park. The package of dams had great appeal to residents of the four upper Colorado River basin states, who envisioned hydroelectric power for industry, businesses, and homes, irrigation water, reservoirs for boating and fishing, and, above all, storage of the upper basin’s legally allotted share of the Colorado River as determined by the Colorado River Compacts of 1922 and 1948. Storing upper basin water would hold it for future use and secure it from the rapidly growing thirst of Nevada, Arizona, and California.
In 1949, following the bureau’s announcement of the upper Colorado Basin Storage Project (CRSP), National Park Service director Newton Drury began questioning the proposed Echo Park dam within the Department of the Interior in Washington, DC. Drury resented the fact that bureau surveyors and geologists could gain access to the dam site without gaining clearance from the Park Service, and he believed the proposed dam and reservoir would massively alter the natural scene within the national monument.
In April 1950, Secretary of the Interior Oscar Chapman convened a hearing on the proposed dam at the Department of the Interior, at which conservationists, western lawmakers, and federal agency officials testified. Two months later Chapman announced his approval of the dam, claiming that in prior years the Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation had agreed to the project through interagency memorandums. Chapman also maintained that the predicted low evaporative rate of the reservoir behind Echo Park dam made the dam site superior to any alternate site.
Defenders of Dinosaur National Monument
Conservationists across the country soon began to campaign against the dam. In July 1950, Bernard DeVoto, Harper’s Magazine columnist, conservation writer, and historian of the American West, helped launch this effort with a sharply worded critique of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, which had its own proposals for dams near or in other national parks. DeVoto’s essay, “Shall We Let Them Ruin Our National Parks?” was published in a 1950 issue of the Saturday Evening Post and did not mince words. He warned that, should the dam be built in Dinosaur National Monument, Echo Park’s rock formations would be submerged and its scenic value destroyed.
Over the next two years other critics made their voices heard, including General Ulysses S. Grant III, a retired officer of the Army Corps of Engineers. Grant denounced the Bureau of Reclamation’s blueprint for the upper Colorado Basin as overly costly and charged the bureau with ignoring excellent dam sites outside Dinosaur National Monument. His critique persuaded Secretary Chapman to put the project on hold in late 1952, effectively leaving the decision on the dam in the hands of the next administration. In late 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of the interior, Douglas MacKay, announced his approval of the Echo Park dam, repeating Chapman’s earlier view that the site was advantageous because its location in a narrow canyon would minimize evaporation.
By this point, a national coalition of conservation organizations had joined forces to oppose the Echo Park dam. The Wilderness Society, National Parks Association, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and Izaak Walton League stood at the forefront of the opposition, with dozens of smaller groups joining them. Conservationists claimed that construction of the dam would violate the National Park Service Act of 1916, which mandated that the parks and monuments be kept unimpaired for future generations. They argued that approval of the dam would make it easier to propose dams within other national parks and monuments.
The Echo Park Battle Crests
Conservationists faced a daunting challenge in appealing to the public for support and in persuading Congress to remove the Echo Park dam from the CRSP. Confusion arose over the dam’s effects on the dinosaur fossils; although the cliff of fossil bones was far removed from the dam site and not imperiled, the name of the preserve suggested otherwise. But when conservationists pointed out that the bones were not in danger, their explanation unwittingly implied that the dam posed no harm. In addition, Dinosaur National Monument was a remote, little-known part of the national park system, and since so few people had visited the preserve, many wondered why it was deemed valuable. Moreover, the canyons and swift-moving rivers in the monument were all but inaccessible except by boat. The fledgling river-running industry had little influence at the time and found it difficult to counter the assertion from proponents of the dam that running the rapids was dangerous.
To overcome these obstacles, conservationists publicized the remote national monument with feature stories and pictures in Living Wilderness, Sierra Club Bulletin, and National Parks Magazine. They also helped arrange for coverage of the controversy by the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and other news outlets. David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, made two films about Dinosaur and persuaded Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society to screen one of them frequently in the halls of Congress. Brower also arranged for Sierra Club float trips through the monument in 1953 and 1954 to demonstrate that river running was safe. He enlisted Wallace Stegner, novelist and biographer of John Wesley Powell (who named Echo Park on his first river trip down the Green River in 1869), to edit a book of essays, This Is Dinosaur, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1955, just as the controversy peaked.
Brower also challenged the bureau engineers’ argument that the dam and reservoir in the high and narrow Whirlpool Canyon would minimize evaporation. At a congressional hearing in early 1954, Brower charged that the engineers had neglected to subtract one key figure while calculating evaporation. Three months later the bureau admitted the error, boosting the conservationists’ case. Conservationists made allies with others opposed to the entire CRSP, including California lawmakers as well as southern and midwestern states wary of the agricultural surpluses a large western water project would create.
In late 1955, upper basin lawmakers in Denver reluctantly agreed to remove the Echo Park dam from the CRSP. In April 1956, President Eisenhower signed the legislation. The CRSP legislation authorized dams at Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon, along with a provision stating that no dam or reservoir could be located within any national park or monument.
Conservationists celebrated the end of their six-year campaign to block the Echo Park dam. In their minds, rejection of the project by Congress demonstrated Americans’ growing devotion to maintain the sanctity of parks and wild areas throughout the United States. Soon after the controversy ended, Howard Zahniser and the Wilderness Society launched a campaign to establish a national wilderness preservation system, capitalizing on the confidence and muscle of the coalition that blocked the Echo Park dam. The controversy over Echo Park dam proved a milestone in US environmental history, revealing the gathering strength of the wilderness movement in the postwar era.