The Older and Wiser Monkey Wrench Gang | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

The Older and Wiser Monkey Wrench Gang 

Legendary environmentalists take on the Utah Sierra Club to drain Lake Powell.

Pin It

It’s 105 degrees in Moab, and the hot summer sun bakes down in waves on the red-rock sentinels that surround this growing oasis on the Colorado River. Air-conditioned tour buses packed with foreigners roar into the parking lots of the ever-expanding chain-motel selection on the town’s northern flank. A half-completed tramway stands nearby; its owners apparently broke.

Friends of Lake Powell Page organization seeks to educate public about dangers of draining.

Have you been cruising through Southern Utah’s canyon country and seen a small blue sign telling you to “Drain Lake Powell?” Have you done a double take and realized that the sign actually said, “Don’t Let the Sierra Club Drain Lake Powell?”

The signs come from a group called Friends of Lake Powell. They’re out to tell desert rats and urban dwellers alike why they shouldn’t support the demolition of the Glen Canyon Dam and the subsequent release of the waters it cradles.

“The Sierra Club wants to restore the canyon to what it was 40 years ago,” says Val Gleave, the Page, Ariz., based organization’s president. “But you cannot restore Glen Canyon.”

The non-profit group’s road signs are part of a larger campaign to educate the public on the possible dangers of draining the lake. Friends of Lake Powell, led by a 15-member board of directors from different parts of Utah and Arizona, wants to correct what it believes is “totally false information” given to the media and public by organizations like the Sierra Club and the Glen Canyon Institute.

The organization coalesced in 1997 in response to the Sierra Club’s vote in support of draining the lake. With the largest environmental group in the country behind it, some feared legislation could become a real possibility. Gleave says the threat affects communities all over the Southwest. The Navajo Nation depends on the dam for jobs at the Navajo Generating Station, and cities like Phoenix depend on its reservoir for water. “Glen Canyon should exist to the benefit of more people than a handful of environmentalists,” Gleave says.

Friends of Lake Powell adamantly maintains that arguments from that “handful of environmentalists” are full of the same holes they want to put in the dam. Paul Ostapuk, who serves on Friends’ board of directors and is an environmental scientist for the Navajo Generating Station, grew up in Tucson with the Ed Abbey monkey wrench mentality, but has changed his mind about the dam since moving to Page 15 years ago. “Living here, I know the truth,” he says. “The dam’s problems are fictitious in a lot of ways.” Ostapuk says many of the Glen Canyon Institute’s claims are unfounded, including those about the dam’s safety. “They told Outside magazine that Lake Powell was dangerous for pregnant women,” Ostapuk says. “That’s outrageous.”

Friends of Lake Powell says the lake is actually environmentally advantageous. Ostapuk expresses concern about potential air quality problems associated with draining the lake. He cites California’s now-empty Lake Owens as one of the “biggest particulate problems in the country.” Ostapuk also testifies that the habitats created by flooding the canyon have become refuges for endangered species such as the American eagle and Peregrine falcon. Gleave says 91 bird species have been counted in Lake Powell. In the emerging age of ecological restoration, new questions are popping up about the reality of environmental backtracking. Doubt about humans’ ability to “restore” environments to pre-industrial revolution condition is beginning to surface.

In Lake Powell’s case, Ostapuk calls restoration “a step back.” The side canyons of the Glen, once filled with endemic species, would crowd with “non-natives,” he says. But what separates Lake Powell from any other ecological disturbance, such as fire or avalanche? “Those are part of natural cycles. Dams are not,” Ostapuk adds.

Gleave has also made up her mind. “These are environmentalists,” she says, “who are not in touch with what the real environmental problems are.”

The Glen Canyon Institute says it is taking Friends of Lake Powell’s concerns into consideration during its assessment of the dam’s decommissioning. The results, which will address economic issues like the well-being of the Navajo Nation and communities like Page, are due out in October. The Institute’s Brian Gibbons says the group feels confident a free-flowing Colorado would “ultimately be better,” allowing nature to take its course.

The question inevitably becomes whether or not a fixture like the Glen Canyon Dam is sustainable. Sustainability is a slippery term, with environmental, cultural and economic facets. But to Friends of Lake Powell, community sustainability is of utmost importance. “What about all the people that have moved here?” Gleave asks. As with other Western resource conflicts, it is a case of outsiders telling locals what to do. But unlike the usual recreation/ranching economic dichotomy, both sides of this debate are pushing recreation. Gibbons asserts that draining the lake “doesn’t mean that new recreational opportunities couldn’t be created.”

One reason to create sustainable environments and communities is the connection people can feel toward a place, a major rallying point for the Sierra Club and Glen Canyon Institute. Both have used photos of the pre-dam canyon and the words of eloquent writers like Wallace Stegner to inspire support for their cause. But Friends of Lake Powell claims it, too, has a connection to the canyon, as well as to the fish and bird life it harbors. “We have a great emotional attachment to the beauty of Lake Powell that matches if not surpasses theirs,” Gleave says. “And I think they’ve been surprised by it.”

By Tim Sullivan

The signatures of what Edward Abbey called “industrial tourism” are everywhere—traffic, fast-food joints and a seemingly endless stream of tourists. They’ll drive through nearby Arches National Park and maybe even walk a block or two before climbing back into refrigerated Oldsmobiles and Fords, then reattaching their lips to Big Gulp sodas. These pale and flabby windshield tourists have been joined by a new, more toned and tanned crowd—the action vacationers.

Action vacationers like to ride bicycles around the town’s legendary Slickrock Trail, kayak down the Colorado and rappel from sandstone cliffs. The heat seems little bother to them. By evening, they will adjourn to one of Moab’s microbreweries or break bread at one of the town’s yuppie eateries.

The tourist economy may be the great economic savior for Moab and other Southern Utah towns, but not everyone likes it. In the words of Jim Stiles, publisher and editor of Moab’s alternative newspaper Canyon Country Zephyr, the town is no longer a community; it’s a population center where people come and go, but where few stay to stake a claim. It is starkly different from the uranium-mining town it displaced. But while tourism doesn’t gouge holes in the earth, it too can be tough on the environment—particularly one as fragile as the deserts of the Colorado Plateau.

Stiles, in some ways, might be seen as a disciple of Abbey. Like Abbey, he worked as a ranger at Arches and traced his footsteps through this rugged and beautiful land. And like Abbey, he has chosen the pen as his weapon to battle those who would transform it.

Twelve miles south of town at the foot of the Manti-La Sal Mountains, where steep gray granite peaks leap up a vertical mile out of the red sandstone, quiet reigns in stark contrast to Moab. There, Stiles sits down with Ken Sleight at the Pack Creek Ranch to plan a revolution. More accurately, they’re charting out strategy for a rather small skirmish in the revolution that would drain Lake Powell.

Nonetheless, it has the appearance of an important battlefront. Although Stiles is a generation younger than Abbey, he is talking with the man who the late environmental activist and writer immortalized as Seldom Seen Smith in his book The Monkey Wrench Gang. Sleight, now 70 but still going strong, is an old-line environmentalist who has run a small guide service and river-running operation since Moab’s uranium boom days.

As they drink coffee on the veranda in the relatively cool 95-degree heat, they’re chewing on how to get the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter to call for the restoration of Glen Canyon. It means taking out the dam that has held back the Colorado River for more than 35 years. It means draining Lake Powell—one of Utah’s largest tourist attractions with 3 million annual visitors. It is the same subject that Abbey reflected upon in the Monkey Wrench Gang some 25 years ago.

But Sleight and Stiles will go about it differently than the fictionalized characters Abbey sketched out—characters who would rather blow things up than dismantle them with politics. Still, the battle is a strange one. Four years ago, Sierra Club founder David Brower and the organization’s national board called publicly for the draining of Lake Powell. The proposal continues to shock many Utah boaters and tourism promoters. The state’s Republican political leaders simply roll their eyes and label the plan as more evidence that environmentalists are, after all, just plain crazy.

In that light, perhaps it’s not completely strange that the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club has been mum on the issue—and purposefully so. In order to stay on track in political battles against urban sprawl and pollution—symbolized by Gov. Mike Leavitt’s Legacy Highway—as well as in the debate over federal wilderness designation, the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club hasn’t just been silent. Members of the Utah chapter castigated the club’s national board for not consulting them before reaching the eye-popping decision to let the Colorado flow freely through Glen Canyon once again. That the national board made its very public proclamation on the heels of Bill Clinton’s incendiary move to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument left Utah Sierra Club board members with a case of political whiplash. How could they carry forward their battles when Utah’s power brokers were furious with environmentalists?

Despite the political landscape, Stiles and Sleight saw the Utah chapter and its northern Utah-based executive committee as out of step with the Sierra Club. They certainly don’t care for the school of strategy that could turn its back on the restoration of Glen Canyon, and Abbey’s legacy in general. Glen Canyon has come to symbolize both the failure and promise of the environmental movement on the Colorado Plateau. It is for them the worst kind of land stewardship—obliterating a natural wonder for economic and political reasons. At the same time, it stands as the epitome of Abbey’s so-called industrial tourism—one characterized by oil slicks and human waste and visitors who seem to have little appreciation of what’s beneath the surface. And so it was more than a year ago that the pair hit upon an idea while chewing the fat on Sleight’s porch—they’d start a Southern Utah group of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter to vocalize discontent with the dam. They would call it the Glen Canyon Group.

Needless to say, the idea was less than a hit with executive committee members in Salt Lake City, who had done their best to steer clear—at least publicly—of the swampy debate that surrounds draining Lake Powell. “We didn’t agree with the way it was done,” explained Anne Wechsler, former chairwoman of Utah’s executive committee. “It was done at a national board meeting and it wasn’t on the agenda,” she said, referring to the resolution to decommission Glen Canyon Dam. “It came as a big surprise to us. That isn’t the way the club normally operates.”

Wechsler flew to San Francisco to have a word with the board at the meeting following the Lake Powell epiphany. “The board members were apologetic, and surprised that the Utah Chapter had not been consulted,” she said.

Sierra Club members in Utah purposely didn’t engage in the Lake Powell debate, Wechsler admitted. “Frankly, we didn’t want the media to think we were working on that in Utah. … We were working on certain issues and the national proposal became very obtrusive. We didn’t want to dump everything on what was a whim on their part.”

When Sleight, a longtime member of the Sierra Club, approached Utah’s executive committee, he got a cool reception. There was hemming and hawing, as Sleight remembers it. “They saw me as an intruder. … I could tell they were digging their heels in.” Although Sleight and Stiles had drafted 25 interested members, as bylaws suggest, Utah’s executive committee wanted to think about it. And think they did—for months and months until Sleight and Stiles grew weary and disgruntled from the lack of response. “They stonewalled me,” Sleight said. “They wouldn’t send me any materials. I asked to be on the membership committee, and they didn’t respond.”

After contentious phone calls and e-mails with committee members, Stiles withdrew from the battle—at least the part involving his membership in the group—believing he might be a roadblock to the southern group’s formation. Later, dissatisfied with foot-dragging and what he says was a lack of forthrightness, Sleight resigned his 15-year membership to the Sierra Club and walked away. In the April/May issue of the Canyon Country Zephyr, the pair reprised their effort to form a Southern Utah group within the Sierra Club. The 3,000-word missive was titled, “Sierra Clubbed, the rise, fall and emasculation of The Glen Canyon Group.”

The article aimed to undress the Utah Chapter publicly by juxtaposing the intent of the Sierra Club’s national board with that of the local executive committee. Stiles and Sleight quoted a resolution from the Utah group that had remained under wraps until then: “Whereas the Executive Committee of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club is concerned about the timing of the national Sierra Club’s Lake Powell media campaign and negative impacts of the campaign on the Utah wilderness effort … the National Sierra Club should spend no more time, money or other resources promoting or implementing its Lake Powell policy, and should not participate in any further media events to promote the draining of Lake Powell, until after a good Utah wilderness bill is passed.”

Between the behind-the-scenes wrangling and the publication of the story, something interesting was taking shape. Longtime Sierra Club members from northern Utah, Jean and Mike Binyon, had moved to Moab. The on-again off-again Southern Utah group was apparently on again, and it looked as though the Binyons would be heading things up. The Binyons had been affiliated with the executive committee when it passed its resolution against the national board’s recommendation to drain Powell, giving off what Stiles sensed was the smell of conspiracy.

In the Zephyr, Stiles and Sleight described what they called the “emasculation” of the Glen Canyon Group. Quoting executive committee member Dan Schroeder from an e-mail message, the pair illustrated just how far the Utah chapter wanted to stay from the Lake Powell proposal. “I and others feel that the name of the group should not be Glen Canyon. I’ve written ‘Canyonlands,’ but you folks may prefer something else, and I really don’t care as long as it’s not Glen Canyon,” Schroeder wrote to the Binyons.

The icing on the cake, however, was a resolution Schroeder penned forbidding Utah Sierra Club members even to speak about the proposal to restore Glen Canyon. Stiles and Sleight labeled it a “gag order”:

“[I]t shall be the policy of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club not to initiate public discussion or debate on the issue of Glen Canyon restoration at this time. ‘Public discussion’ includes (but is not limited to) press releases, mailings, electronic communications, contacts with media, and events to which the public is invited. Should such public discussion be initiated by the media or other parties, those who speak for the chapter shall endeavor not to participate in any official capacity. Direct questions by the media may be answered factually.”

Having had a gut full, Stiles and Sleight tacked around for a full broadside, questioning whether the executive committee of the Utah chapter actually represents anyone beyond itself. Stiles had requested to know the total number of Sierra Club members in Utah, as well as how many voted in the executive committee’s last election. The silence that followed was deafening. Stiles, however, says he received a tip charging that only 40 of the 4,000 Utah Sierra Club members voted—a total of 1 percent. That figure cannot be confirmed, because records from the vote apparently no longer exist.

Nina Dougherty, who now chairs the Utah chapter, was taken aback by the Zephyr’s fusillade and what she described as a vehement attack on the executive committee. “I hadn’t wanted to have a feud with the Zephyr, so I haven’t responded,” she said in a City Weekly interview.

She wondered aloud why Stiles and Sleight didn’t just form their own group independent of the Sierra Club, and hinted that their approach was something of an insurgency. “They decided they wanted to become a Sierra Club group. This is not the way Sierra Club groups are formed. Theirs was going to be a one-issue group.”

Beyond that, Dougherty backed away from the notion that the Utah chapter was at odds with the Sierra Club national board. “In terms of the resolution [to oppose draining Lake Powell] … that was in the past. That was our initial reaction. … This chapter does not oppose the national policy. The national board’s policy doesn’t necessarily mean taking action. In this case, the action is to gather information,” she explained.

Schroeder, too, confirmed that the board was miffed with Stiles and Sleight. “Sleight came to the meeting and we discussed procedure. But it had been 10 years since a group was formed. We said, hold off and let us do our homework. But Stiles had already announced the formation of the group in the Zephyr. … There was animosity from his original column and the animosity did cloud people’s thinking.”

Animosity is an understatement following the lashing the Utah chapter executive committee took in the May/April Zephyr. But the proposal for a Moab-based group had gained a life of its own. “They finally got to the point where they had to hold a meeting in Southern Utah to see if there was interest [in forming a group],” Stiles said. “We took the article that was coming out in the Zephyr and sent it to 90 Sierra Club members in Southern Utah.”

In a March meeting in Moab, some 60 people came ready to form a new Sierra Club group. Suddenly, Sleight was back in the mix. In June, the members voted to call themselves The Glen Canyon Group. And on Aug. 3, after a great deal of campaigning, Sleight was voted chairman. But in a surprise move, a motion was made to keep Sleight from participating on the chapter’s executive committee as is the norm for group chairmen. When it passed, Sleight resigned the chairmanship, saying the move would hamstring him.

The surprise motion, Sleight believes, was orchestrated by the executive committee with the help of the Binyons. “When they fracture it like this, it cuts my effectiveness in half. They have cut me out at every turn. Right now the chapter is pulling the strings.”

Sleight and Stiles have little choice now but to carry forward their battle to restore Glen Canyon without the Sierra Club.

It’s a discussion that’s been going on for some 35 years now, Sleight admits. “The Monkey Wrench Gang got going when I’d go down [the Colorado River] to Lee’s Ferry where Abbey was the ranger and we would talk about how to get rid of that damn dam. That’s where Abbey got the idea for the story.”

Sleight acknowledges that his legend as a Monkey Wrench Gang member probably doesn’t help things with the northern Utah executive committee. “Some of them don’t want to be in bed with a radical. I don’t see myself as a radical, but if the ecosystem is being destroyed, then let’s go after it.”

It’s a clash Stiles finds more than a little ironic. “They associate Ken with Ed Abbey and his politics. But if you go to the Utah chapter’s website, you get a quote from Ed Abbey.”

So Stiles wonders about the Utah chapter’s convictions. “You talk to some politician in 1955 on civil rights. They say they are for civil rights but not in favor of a civil rights act. ‘Maybe in time,’ they say. That’s what the Utah chapter is doing. It’s one thing to have lofty ideals, but to have the courage and conviction to follow through is another matter.”

Pin It

More by Christopher Smart

Latest in News

© 2023 Salt Lake City Weekly

Website powered by Foundation