Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Wildness and Wet


One of the many difficult decisions we face, as the wise stewards of creation, has to do with the "appropriate" flow rate of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Should we have a steady stream that generates maximum power for the ever-growing cities of the Desert West? Or should we try to recreate the natural flows we've destroyed, in hopes of making this official "wilderness area" seem as untouched as possible?

Since construction of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, the Colorado River’s volume through the Grand Canyon has been artificially set. On March 4, 2008, Interior allowed a 60-hour high flow experiment through the canyon. Both National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife officials expressed concern that any benefit to wildlife from a single surge would be lost if not repeated, since a more natural flow pattern is needed to lift sediment onto beaches and facilitate reproduction of endangered canyon fish.

The most outspoken has been Superintendent Steve Martin who wrote that “Based on current scientific information, lack of inclusion of additional high flows could lead to impairment of the resources of Grand Canyon National Park.” This “impairment” finding makes Interior’s steady flow regime legally vulnerable and has sparked an intense campaign by water users to force Martin to retract his statements.
As fascinating as I find this artificial flow rate, what's really interesting here is the attempt to make Superintendent Martin "unsay" a word that might trigger certain inconvenient legal mechanisms. It's as though the law is a demon that can be raised by carelessly saying some forbidden word.

While we're on the topic of wilderness, and language, depopulation in North Dakota is reportedly leading to a process of "rewilding," and this, in turn, has inaugurated a new era of "eco-tourism."
Off the Beaten Path, an operator based in Bozeman, Mont., was one of the first to take advantage of interest in rewilding. Among its custom and group tours, it runs guided six-day wolf-watching trips. “They know they just want to see wolves,” said Bill Bryan, a co-founder and chairman of the company, of his growing clientele.
The opportunities for growth presented by this region's failure to grow are limited only by our imagination. Jeep safaris, self-guided auto tours and "prairie flights" are ideal for those who want to experience the quiet serenity of The World Without Us, and all three are likely to increase in popularity. But the real money is in big-game hunting. Not just because you can charge a tourist $2000 to shoot a bison, but also because the sort of people who can afford to spend that kind of money on canned hunting are accustomed to a certain degree of luxury:
Accommodations on many extended Upper Midwest trips tend to be rustic, with basic lodges or ranch houses; on the self-drives, you can cruise for hours through the desolate plains moonscapes without coming to a sizable town.

But that will change. “Five years from now, you’ll have the infrastructure here for a more upscale experience,” said Mr. Bryan of Off the Beaten Path.
Some people might worry that this "rewilding" is simply a new form of exploitation that's bound to follow its own course of pathological growth, and will end by consuming its own attractions. It could be true, for all I know.

But in the meantime, you can't deny the appeal of pretending you're back in the more innocent days of the 19th century, when the West was just beginning to be tamed.
“The most incredible thing is, if you want to experience the Great Plains the way it was in the 19th century, you can still have that experience,” said Ted Lee Eubanks, chief executive of Fermata, a company that helps regions develop eco-tourism. “You can still stand right in the wagon ruts from that time.”
I'm willing to bet you can still follow them, too.

(Photo of Glen Canyon by Alejandro Marentes.)

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