“Okay,” I thought, “I’m going to be going down a river with people whose primary ideology I disagree with.” But then I reasoned, “maybe my point of view could provide an interesting story.
Why should every story be about everyone being agreeable? I’ll go, I decided, be nice yet disagreeable, and completely honest.”
So I went on a trip down the Yampa River with a group of people who I knew would very likely espouse many things with which I would disagree since they were hard-core environmentalist liberals. As for me, I’m a small-government libertarian.
So there we have it. This is the lens from which I write this story. Now you know my conscious bias. But I’ll further add, I love the environment, nature and the wilderness, and I also appreciate Edward Abbey’s writings. You can’t put me in a box.
But I really don’t like environmentalists who believe they should be in charge of millions of acres of our public lands and that anybody who is trying to use the land to make a living is a lower human. Utah Stories is “The voice of local Utah”, and we speak for ranchers, farmers, oil workers, coal miners and makers of all sorts. Rural Utah is being decimated due to government regulation and “protection.” I decided I would be nice, but on a mission to challenge protection rather than promote or celebrate it as everyone else on this trip was here to do.
The day we shove off I meet several BLM employees, Bunny, Evan and Judy. I also meet Risa, Jack and John, members of the River Management Society, an NGO that provides data to the BLM and parks. I would challenge their notions of “protectionism” on this trip. I will be open and honest about who I am and where I come from and I will be probably a bit of a contrarian to the entire emphasis of the trip, which is “A Celebration of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act” which was passed 50 years ago under the LBJ administration.
I’m going to suggest you don’t wear your watch, says our river captain and expedition leader Max. “I’m not going to tell you to wake up at a certain time. Instead, try to pay less attention to time for the next few days.” max is tanned, fit and lean and it turns out his sage advice would be easy to follow as I and several others prepared to raft the wild Yampa River.
In mid-morning we shoved off onto the Yampa from Deerlodge Park, Colorado. I easily forgot about work and entered the moment. Cottonwoods hung over the shore and the redrock and brilliant black cliff walls immediately towered overhead. Big horned sheep grazed on the shore, and paused to witness our four 19’ rubber boats and two inflatable duckies.
I gained the sense that we—along with the leaves, tree branches, ducks and the occasional dog—are all just passengers riding on one of the most powerful yet pleasant forces of nature. It did not take long before a serene and peaceful feeling made the time pass easily. Now I understood why so many want to be here. Today 9,000 applicants vie for just 300 private permits. There is a narrow four-month window for getting on the Yampa. When the snow melts from the high Uintas, there is high water. Once the snow has melted, most rafting is done.
On the first night after dinner and around a campfire, we learned about the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act proposed by President Johnson. It was passed by Congress in 1968 to preserve and protect the last remaining wild rivers from rampant industrial pollution and development. This is a noble cause, but as the sceptic, I was curious about exactly who the government was protecting it from. It turns out the answer to this question was quite surprising.
The following night, after asking several pointed questions, I learned that the Yampa River was designated by the Bureau of Reclamation to become a dam site back in the 1950s. It turns out that the town of Vernal was gearing up to become home to a major “recreation reservoir.” This would certainly have not only benefited the local economy, but would also save the lives of residents from Yampa River flooding (paraphrasing the spin the feds were issuing to placate the locals).
The dam would be a “jewel of Dinosaur National Monument”. But by this time, people were already running and enjoying the wild river. A young man named Buzz Hatch had grown up with his brothers taking rides down the Yampa using logs for flotation devices. In their teens, they traded logs for kayaks. Then Buzz bought an inflatable rubber boat and began making overnight trips with camping equipment. He began building a reputation for himself by safely taking passengers down the river.
When plans were made to flood the entire canyon, Hatch didn’t want to witness the destruction of what he believed to be the most amazing canyon on earth.
A wilderness activist and writer from the LA Times named Martin Litton had the same thought after he took one of Hatch’s trips. He became determined to convince Congress that it would be a terrible tragedy to send the spectacular geology, dozens of Native American antiquity sites and ranches to a watery grave in the name of hydroelectric power and “progress”.
Martin Litton wrote and photographed articles that clearly depicted the stunning scenery and splendor in vivid detail. In a story entitled “U.S. Dams Threaten Home Where Dinosaurs Roamed”, Litton gives the following description:
“Twelve miles east of Jensen, Utah, where “The land falls away to the wild, magnificent, turbulent terrain that guards the meeting place of the Green and Yampa Rivers.
“Three thousand feet below past sloping groves of quaking aspen, is Castle Park, where the Yampa makes a long loop southward before turning northwest into Bear Canyon. Down there you can see a short stretch of the river, window between sandy beaches, now through the meadows and cottonwood groves of its flat-floored, cliff-girt valley. The rest of it is lost in the maze of pale ivory canyons through which it meanders in oxbows and gooseneck curves.”
The LA Times Saves Utah From A Destructive Dam
Litton’s story and photos ran on the front pages of the LA Times. He put a human touch to the Yampa as well. One photo is of rancher Pat Mantle, a cowboy on his father’s ranch, lounging in a log cabin. These stories along with a clever ad campaign funded by philanthropist Edward H. Mallinckrodt, Jr. made an impact. An ad ran in five major newspapers which said:
Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so that tourists can get nearer the ceiling?
In later years, Litton backed the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Glen Canyon Institute in trying to restore the gem that “Lake” Powell had drowned. They also helped cancel two more proposed dam sites which would have in effect converted most of the Grand Canyon into a massive man-made lake. These dam sites were conceived by the Bureau of Reclamation to fulfill its mission “to manage, develop, and protect water and related resources in an environmentally and economically sound manner in the interest of the American public.”
So to answer my earlier question, to protect the rivers from whom? It seems the greatest adversary of free-flowing rivers is the government itself. So LBJ essentially passed The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to save our rivers from other government agencies and progress itself, a worthy objective, even to my libertarian mindset. With many of our greatest rivers facing pollution woes, who is there to step in and do something other than the government? I sincerely ask this of my fellow libertarians. Still, it was the actions of three men forcing the hand of government to act that saved this Yampa River treasure.
Buzz Hatch who helped to get the environmental community on board to save the Yampa went on to start his own river company—Hatch River Expeditions. The company was family-owned for three generations and guided passengers down both the Yampa and the Colorado. The Hatch family recently sold their interests to a national adventure conglomerate.
Martin Litton formed his own Grand Canyon dory company and is now a legend. He served on the Sierra Club’s board in the sixties and went on to fight battles to save mountain tops in the Sierras from highways and old-growth redwood stands in California. He was a good friend of Edward Abbey. Litton passed away in 2014 at the age of 97.
Back to my own story traveling down the Yampa. I gained a great deal of respect for the hard-working environmentalists who protect rivers. On the river I met Risa, who is the executive director for the River Management Society. She led me to the story of Martin Litton and his articles. I am indebted to her.
As for the rest of the trip. It was all spectacular. Upon returning home, I suffered a few days of reverse culture shock and became acutely aware of how much time I spend looking at my phone rather than cliff walls, big horned sheep and cottonwood trees.
It is thanks to environmentalists that we are able to enjoy the wonderland that is the Yampa and witness Dinosaur National Monument on this wonderful wild river. We have to question the degree to which we (or the Bureau of Reclamation) would destroy Mother Nature’s greatest treasures to provide the civilized world more AC in our homes. Is it not better to keep fighting the good fight to keep our waterways, mountains and forests wild and scenic?
Special thanks to Sheri Griffith River Expeditions. Without them sending me I would have never have gone on this trip or written this story.