Review: Still the Wild River Runs: Congress, the Sierra Club and the Fight to Save Grand Canyon

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Review: Still the Wild River Runs: Congress, the Sierra Club and the Fight to Save Grand Canyon By Byron E. Pearson Reviewed by Ryder W. Miller San Francisco, California, USA Byron E. Pearson. Still the Wild River Runs: Congress, the Sierra Club and the Fight to Save Grand Canyon. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8165-2058-5. US$45.00. Acid-free, archival-quality paper.

Just as a mountain can be a metaphor of the struggle necessary to climb to the top, or the coastline a boundary between different worlds, or a river a journey, the Grand Canyon can represent a vast barrier between groups of people. In the saga recounted in Still the Wild River Runs by Byron E. Pearson, the Grand Canyon could have represented the divide between the unconcerned public or government and the environmental movement, which is chronicled to have "come of age" as a result of having won the battle to save the Grand Canyon. Pearson, bucking documented environmental history in such works as Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash, finds other heroes than the environmental activists.

Pearson chronicles how saving the Grand Canyon was a battle that the environmental movement had to win. In the 1960s, late in the battle, the Sierra Club lost its tax deductible status when it placed ads in the New York Times in order to protest plans to dam the Grand Canyon. But one should wonder why Pearson is so interested in making the point that the Sierra Club does not fully deserves the credit it gained in the environmental movement for its role in this struggle. While reading, I questioned why Pearson did not point out a dozen times that the Sierra Club bridged the gap between the environmental movement and the un-motivated public by making the stand they did. The public responded by supporting the Sierra Club, seeing the action of the federal government to remove their tax-deductible status as an act that prohibited free speech. The public responded with unprecedented support and financial donations, and the Sierra Club gained public recognition as the preservers of the Grand Canyon. But Pearson is more impressed with the political machinations and the regulatory agency players. Chronicled here are the maneuvers of Arizona congressman Stewart Udall, the Senate Interior Committee, the Central Arizona Project, Arizona senator Carl Hayden, and others.

Pearson goes a long way to argue that the Sierra Club had less of an effect on the political debate that resulted in the preservation of the Grand Canyon. Pearson relays that the real gain was the passage of the National Environmental Protect Act (NEPA), which gave preservationists inroads into the political process. Pearson argues that the Sierra Club had a mirage of power, but one should question the timing of publishing such a perspective. Not only did the environmental movement lose its chance of having Al Gore or Ralph Nader as the environmental president, the wise use movement with its plethora of new environmental groups has also obfuscated the movement. The Sierra Club must presently contend with what could be viewed as a political backlash against environmentalism, a sometimes unsympathetic president who was dubbed the "polluters' president," and the many concerned parties who want the Sierra Club to take on their issues irrespective of the bureaucratic process that results in the Sierra Club's issues. The book comes across as an ill-timed cheap shot, and suggests that the author doesn't understand that the political process does not occur in the absence of the public, but rather should reflect the public's interests and concerns, which groups like the Sierra Club sometimes need to channel.

The work does not read as well intentioned or concerned, but maybe the Sierra Club is facing the consequences of the environmental movement no longer always being nice. There are millions of concerned people, but the leaders (and writers) need now to be experts, people with degrees or job titles, famous environmental activists, editors, presidents, or the chosen few who are concerned and extremely eloquent. …