A little lesson from Ernest Hemmingway

The depiction of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon as a "wild, red, outlaw river," is one of the more successful ploys of propaganda I have encountered.  And it has stuck, like a wad of chewing gum drenched in Superglue…for decades!

In the 50's, while the Bureau of Reclamation was lobbying for the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, The National Park Service published a voluminous report on the recreational resources of the Upper Colorado River Basin. It included this statement:

"The potential dams and reservoirs would eliminate for the few the thrills of boating down the untamed river, and reduce the apparent depth of the river canyons.  They would be confined in the canyons of the Colorado and Green Rivers and have little, if any, effect upon the great recreational resources of the region.  Instead the reservoirs would provide a means of access for the many to see the wonders of the canyons."
Note the spin doctor's choice of words, especially those highlighted in red.

In, 1962, I made a slide show showing Glen Canyon and comparing it with the reservoir that now takes its place.  In it I quoted that "potential dams" statement.  The slide show rapidly became much in demand.  After one of its earliest showings—to the Mill Valley (California) Homeowner's Association—a gentleman came up and took a place in the crowd that invariably gathered around me and the projectors.  He finally got my attention and asked, "You know that quotation you read . . .?"

"Yes?" I responded, still trying to answer a deluge of question about the kind of film I used (Anscrochrome and Kodachrome II), whether the rapids really were, in Glen, nothing more than riffles (hardly even riffles), whether anything was still left to see (there was still a little...go!...see it!).

"I wrote it," he said.

What followed took me several days to fully digest.  Those hectic after-show sessions were busy, answering all the questions, gathering the equipment together, carting it out to the car, trying to schedule the inevitable requests for further showings, etc, etc, etc.

This is the gist of it:  He identified himself as Philip Kearney, a park planner for the National Park Service.  He had been given the assignment of assessing the recreation potentials for over a hundred reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

That quotation was not what he had originally written.

While many of the potential reservoirs had great recreational possibilities, in his opinion, the flooding of Glen Canyon would be one of the greatest recreational catastrophes of all time.  Glen Canyon Dam should not be built.  He had explored Glen.  He had, of course, discovered what we discovered: a place of unequaled, magical beauty and an experience of indescribable magnificence.  He said so in his original report.

The Bureau of Reclamation did not like what he said.  They demanded the rewrite you see above.  Kearney reluctantly obliged, and was then taken from his job in the West and reassigned to Washington, D. C. where he couldn't so displease BurRec.

I checked the recreation report: one of its four authors was Philip W. Kearney.

In 1997, Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert shed a little more light on that recreational catastrophe.  Blaine Hamann, manager of Hoover Dam, was quoted:  “He [Floyd Dominy, head of BurRec, whose greatest pride is Glen Canyon Dam] was sort of the role model for a lot of ways that the Bureau approached things.  It was a sort of ‘Damn the torpedoes; let's get this son-of-a-bitch built.’”  In Dominy's own words:  "I was a crusader for the development of water.  I was the messiah! I was the evangelist...that went out and argued persuasively to develop our rivers and water supply for the benefit of people."

Furthermore, "I think it's a shame that we haven't developed every single possible kilowatt from this renewable, non-polluting source of energy...I had no sympathy for those who felt that nature couldn't be improved upon.  Now I admit that nature can't improve upon man.  We're probably the supreme being.  But in the realm of rivers, I think man can improve upon 'em."

Any opposition?  Then, " ...all I had to do was alert the White House that those people were twisting my tail and pinching a little, and it stopped.  Lyndon [President Johnson] took care of it."
I suspect it was Dominy who wrote those lines that appear on the page of Lake Powell, Jewell of the Colorado which shows the magnificent Hidden Passage being flooded by trash laden reservoir water.  (The picture is printed backwards, presumably because the true appearance of Hidden Passage didn't quite suit the layout for the booklet.  Dominy gave a seminar in the building where I was working on my PhD thesis and showed us many of his pictures of Lake Powell, about half of which he showed sideways–like the picture on the back cover of The Jewell–because, "they look like totem poles," he said.)  How could we forget that poem?...
The wild, red, outlaw river,
Now flowing clean and blue,

Elsewhere in The Jewell we read:

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


Shortly after the waters rose up to the tops of the inner canyons of Glen, where the reservoir surface is no longer protected from the sudden wind storms, Keturah and I got caught in a sudden storm that turned the surface into a violent and confusing trap of crisscrossing white-capped waves.  Even though we had bolted our kayaks together into a motor-driven catamaran that had easily ridden the roughest water San Francisco Bay had to offer, we found it difficult to keep upright.  We took shelter in nearby Cornerstone Canyon which our familiarity with Glen allowed us to find in the jumble of slick rock.  The next day, a ranger scouting the reservoir told us that seven big boats at the Wahweap Marina had capsized in that storm.
We took shelter from one of Lake Powell's raging
wind storms in flooded Cornerstone Canyon.

And PBS TV tells us (in a 1997 piece about Lake Powell) that "Boat wakes have replaced the raging rapids of the Colorado."

It was Ernest Hemmingway who said that one of man's most valuable pieces of mental equipment is a well functioning "crap detector."

Call it propaganda.  Call it spin doctoring.  Call it advertising.  Call it free speech.  Call it creating a place a little closer to God.

It's still a part of that human use of information that includes pseudoscience, misconceptions, superstitions, and the many catastrophes of oversimplification.  It includes the cigarette advertising which once claimed that cigarettes are a medicinal marvel—even though the cigarette makers (also readers of Scientific American and Consumer Reports) knew the more complete truth virtually everybody knows today.

The era of dam building is rapidly drawing to a close because the crap detectors that began to develop flourishingly in human thinking about the time of  Isaac Newton are spreading into the thinking of more and more people.

Phil Pennington
April 4, 1999


the flag is waving A link will be developed from here pointing to several kinds of "red flags" to watch for that might help us avoid falling into logic-traps of oversimplification.  The persistent propaganda ploy of depicting as "raging rapids" the Glen Canyon that was under what is now Powell Reservoir is just such a "red flag."