In the final part of John McPhee’s 1971 classic, Encounters with the Archdruid, David Brower and Floyd Dominy — both men I would have loved to meet — raft the Grand Canyon together.
Dominy, then commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, had proposed a series of dams throughout the canyon. Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, had done everything he could to stop him. And yet the book, which is a true story, begins with the two adversaries together on a boat, enjoying a beer between rapids.
I’ve been drawn to this story for years. Two of the great rivals in the history of the environmental movement, together in the exact place they’re fighting over — directly in context.
It was the inspiration for a trip my family and I took earlier last month — two days, one night on the Green River in Lodore Canyon, in Dinosaur National Monument. This is where Brower and Dominy’s Bureau of Reclamation battled over the proposed but never-built Echo Park Dam.
More recently, Dinosaur and the surrounding desert have been the subject of a series of debates epitomizing the challenges that the state of Colorado faces: energy development versus conservation and recreation; West Slope water versus Front Range water diversions; land development versus species protection. We invited people to the raft trip who represented all of these angles and more, including representatives of the oil and gas industry, conservationists, hunters, water managers. Think leaders as diverse as Brad Miller, general manager of Anadarko Petroleum, Tim Sullivan, Colorado director of The Nature Conservancy, and Anne Castle, assistant Interior Department secretary for water and science.
Other than the 21 river miles before us and a cooler full of steaks, there was no set agenda.
The trip began as we all waded waist-deep into the water to drag the heavy boats off a sandbar. From there we worked together to scout upcoming rapids, load and unload our gear from the boats, and even spot the occasional bighorn sheep along the bank. With no meeting times, objectives or talking points — wearing bathing suits instead of business suits — we talked not as adversaries, but as companions.
As the trip wound on, people started discussing some polarizing issues — whether the Colorado Bureau of Land Management should embark upon master leasing plans for oil and gas drilling, and about the merits of maintaining instream flows for endangered fish versus other applied uses of that water, just to name a couple of topics.
No matter how divisive the topic, a consensus emerged that we’d avoid ideological standoffs, no matter how much we disagreed. It made for good discussions and might even make a good model for statehouses and the nation.
We were all on the river because of our connection to the Colorado landscape. Regardless of our land-use preferences, we know that we rely on that land now, and will need to do so for a long, long time, for food, for energy, for wildlife habitat, or simply to enjoy the solitude and beauty of an undeveloped place.
Whether because of the setting or simply the teamwork required to run a river, all of our discussions took place with this shared understanding and appreciation in mind. By establishing our mutual priorities, we could begin by moving forward together, instead of immediately pushing apart
As you may have noticed, we don’t see a lot of this in Washington. It might be part of the reason Congress’ approval rating is routinely in the groover — also known as the toilet for those unfamiliar with river trips.
People in Washington are far better at yelling past each other than at sitting down and talking through differences. Fortunately, this trip was a refreshing reminder that at the end of the day there’s nowhere to go but downriver, and everybody’s help is needed to get there.
During our trip we started plenty of debates that will continue long after the river season is over. Perhaps it’s naïve, but I hope we set the table for future policy conversations built around trust and mutual respect.
Above all, we proved something on our trip, something many of our leaders seem to have forgotten since the battle over Echo Park: When it comes to our natural resources, we’re all in the same boat.
Michael F. Bennet is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He represents Colorado in the U.S. Senate and is a Democrat.