Conservation lessons from a still-wild river: be known, spread the word, and get creative.

Author:Van Rheene, Erin
Position:Up Front

I recently rafted a river that wouldn't exist if not for a crucial conservation win back in the 1950s. The Yampa is the last major free-flowing river in the seven-state Colorado River Basin. It's still wild because conservationists fought tooth and nail against its damming. Drifting along the river, gazing up at sheer canyon walls, I wondered: Could that old fight shed any light on today's battles?

The Trump administration has waged a war on wild places and public lands, especially with the current review of twenty-seven of our 129 national monuments, with an eye to shrinking or eliminating them. The so-called public comment period (your chance to comment directly to the federal government) on the monument review ended July 10, but Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has until late August to make his final recommendations. Whatever happens next, there will be more protests and challenges and plenty of opportunity for "public comment" that reach far beyond a form on a federal website.

That the Yampa ran through Dinosaur National Monument worked in its favor some sixty years ago. A leading journalist of the time, Tom Wallace, wrote to President Eisenhower in 1953, explaining that the approval of the Echo Park Dam "would establish the precedent that no national reserve should be considered of sufficient importance as to prevent its being exploited industrially."

Sound familiar? If monuments now under review get "right-sized," in the words of Zinke, watch that space. Chances are the excised areas will be sold off to those who want to mine, extract, log, or graze them. Some of these wild areas are so remote that few have ever seen them.

It's certainly easier to remove protection from areas few people have heard of. In 1950 only fifty people had traveled the Yampa. The Sierra Club led a campaign to make the river more widely known. They lobbied Congress, ran ads, and brought people out to float on and fall in love with the river. A 1953 film follows a smiling group, ages four to seventy-seven, rafting the Yampa. The film closes with, "The decision lies with Congress--your Congress.... Shall we let man undo this miracle?"

It was also important to get writers onboard. Articles and op-eds appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country. San Francisco Chronicle writer David Perlman floated the Yampa in the 1950s with the Sierra Club, writing about the trip and the proposed dam. Harper's columnist Bernard deVoto wrote a scathing and widely read...

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