Glen Canyon Lament By Philip Hyde 2

November 19th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »
Landscape Photography Blogger’s 100th Blog Post started a short three part series on Glen Canyon by Philip Hyde…

A Lament for Glen Canyon by Philip Hyde, Part 2

Continued from Blog Post 100, “Glen Canyon Lament by Philip Hyde 1.”

Originally published in The Living Wilderness Magazine September 1980

From The Living Wilderness: Contributing editor Philip Hyde’s photography of the Escalante region was featured in “Slickrock,” of which he and Edward Abbey wrote the text.

Great Overhang, Moqui Canyon, Glen Canyon, Utah, 1964 by Philip Hyde. Photographed after the gates of Glen Canyon Dam were already closed and "Lake" Powell began its 17 year journey toward filling.

(See the photograph full screen Click Here.)

During the 17 years of painfully slow filling of the reservoir, the “robbing Peter to pay Paul” operation  of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams has left some mementoes: the notices to Hoover Dam power customers to get their power elsewhere; the lawsuits of Lake Mead marina operators when they found their boat-launching ramps not just high and dry but nearly out of sight of water. To make a power dam pay for itself, as both Hoover and Glen were intended to do, requires running water through the turbines. Whenever this is done it draws down the reservoir. During the years that the bureau was trying to fill Glen’s reservoir, it had to borrow water that would have filled Lake Mead. What did this do to the revenues which were the sole financial justification for building both dams? What did it do to the revenue surplus over cost-payback that was supposed to furnish the funds to build the irrigation works planned in association with Glen Canyon Dam as part of the Upper Colorado River Storage Project?

Whatever the answers to such economic questions, the sacrifice of another kind of value is plain enough. Back in the 1930s National Park Service officials were sufficiently impressed with both Glen and Escalante Canyons to urge making them a national park. A 1935 proposal would have created one of 6,000 square miles. But the dam-building fever-the late Elmer Davis once called it “big dam foolishness”—which seized the nation in the 30s and 40s and 50s led to legislation to build a number of dams on the Colorado and its tributaries, including Glen Canyon. Two of them—Echo Park and Split Mountain, proposed for the Green River within Dinosaur National Monument—raised the specter of opening national parks to exploitation and thus aroused the opposition of every major conservation organization in the nation. In those days conservation organizations counted nowhere near the members, funds or public support they do now. Even so, the threat was enough to stop the bill until the two Dinosaur dams were deleted. It was also enough to win protective language for Rainbow Bridge National Monument, on a Glen Canyon tributary, though Lake Powell now laps at the base of this greatest of all natural bridges. But the Upper Colorado River Storage Project, finally approved by Congress in 1956, consigned the magnificence of Glen Canyon to a watery death.

With hindsight, it must seem an unequal compromise that sacrificed Glen Canyon. I consider the loss of Glen Canyon tragic. But I am certain that had Dinosaur been invaded, the precedent would have been enough to make possible the building of dams then on the drawing boards in at least eight national park system areas, including Grand Canyon. As it turned out, the loss of Glen Canyon became a rallying point a few years later when the dam builders actually reached for Grand Canyon. So far, dam proponents have been unable to overcome the worldwide opposition to their scheme. (But old dam proposals don’t die. They don’t even fade away like old soldiers, but stick around to resurface when it is believed that the opposition has relaxed its vigilance.)

Coyote Gulch and the upper Escalante tributaries are important because they constitute the last major remnant of the Glen Canyon system that still has the wild remoteness so essential to the feeling of wilderness. Escalante Canyon, carved into the same sandstone formation of the Jurassic Period as Glen Canyon, has many of the same qualities; the water-sculptured rock, the high, sheer walls decorated with paintbrush-like strokes of blue-black desert varnish; alcoves, stream meanders, natural bridges and arches, and the beautiful riparian plant growth that at once harmonizes and contrasts with the bare stone. Perhaps most impressive of all its qualities is the water—the small streams, springs and seeps so characteristic of the water-bearing Navajo sandstone. In another, wetter country these might be insignificant. But in this arid land of stone and sand, one has only to climb to the rim and walk beyond the reach of these trickles in the desert to appreciate their miraculous quality.

As they were in the original main artery, Glen Canyon, the Escalante’s scenic climaxes are at or close to the stream junctions. Many of the tributaries form incised meanders, a circumstance that gives rise to a whole series of wonders: fluting of the walls, close-linked bends some-times in cliffs hundreds of feet sheer, grottoes, great overhangs, alcoves. Where the meanders leave long, narrow peninsulas of rock, these may be cut through by later stream erosion to form natural bridges, or left above the stream long enough for other forms of erosion to take out the rock at the base, leaving arches.

As the Escalante River winds down and out of the high plateau, flowing in a generally southeasterly direction toward the Colorado, it cuts through an undulating stone basin bound on the southwest by the straight cliffs of the Kaiparowits Plateau and on the northeast by the Henry Mountains. The Escalante and the Henry Mountains were named by John Wesley Powell in 1868—the last named major river and mountain range in the coterminous United States.

The water of Lake Powell, laboriously rising for the last 17 years, has at last claimed many of the most beautiful tributaries of the Escalante—all of those below Coyote Gulch. Now it washes into Coyote, one of the grandest scenic climaxes of the Escalante basin. Was the ruining of the mouth of Coyote Gulch necessary?

Continued in the blog post, “Glen Canyon Lament By Philip Hyde 3.”

To read more about and view Philip Hyde’s landscape photography of Glen Canyon see the blog post, “Glen Canyon Portfolio.”



  1. pj says:

    Good stuff. We have a long and sordid history of sacrificing our great wild lands to the forces of development and greed, and we’re not done yet.

    The dam builders may be quiet these days, but there are others waiting their chance to pounce. As you know, there is renewed talk of opening the same region, right near the Canyonlands, to tar sands development. Will we ever learn? Sometimes it seems pretty unlikely.

    I appreciate these posts David. Your father’s words from a few decades ago ring as true now as they did then. Hopefully they will be widely read, and will inspire a lot of people to get up on their hind legs and fight for what’s left of the wild.

  2. Hi PJ, thank you for mentioning the potential tar sands development of sensitive areas near Canyonlands. To me the whole Tar Sands idea is a monument to how inefficient, abusive and destructive our civilization has become to feed its addiction. Dysfunctional is the word. It will be interesting to see if the general public can realize that we have been peer pressured into being junkies and we need to get ourselves to Petroleum Users Anonymous as soon as possible.

  3. Greg Russell says:

    I know we’ve talked about how good a writer Abbey was, but your father knew how to tug at our heart strings with his photos as well as his words.

    I second PJ’s comments. The idea of learning from our mistakes seems be completely dysfunctional in this regard.


  4. Hi Greg, thank you for sharing your impressions and feelings you have when reading Dad’s writings. Dad had very deep feelings about the land and keeping it the way it was. That is probably one of the main reasons he moved others to photograph and otherwise become active on behalf of wilderness. The problem with learning from our mistakes is that we are still in the process. Many of us have not yet learned anything and may not until the negative consequences become much more obvious. Right now the payoff to destroy nature for some is still greater than the adverse consequences.

  5. Steve Sieren says:

    It all really makes you wonder if you’ll ever get to see the bottom of Glen Canyon or Lake Mead in our lifetime. I’ve always heard talk about draining Lake Powell but not much about Lake Mead. Seeing the walls of Black Canyon from the bottom make you wonder how beatiful the narrows in the middle of Lake Mead might be?

  6. Thanks Steve, we probably won’t see the bottom of either because they will be full of mud. Even if the dams were completely breached, the silt would take a long time to clear out. Unless they do a restoration project as the Glen Canyon Institute is pushing for. They want a Glen Canyon National Park.

  7. Reading about this – I felt such a sense of loss. I wish we would learn to use less energy and water instead of trying to supply a wasteful nation. I would rather have this beautiful canyon back.


  8. Sharon, thank you for reading. I couldn’t agree more. It seems like many people see this, as it is obvious. However, not enough people are paying any attention to it, or unplugging from their consumer lifestyle long enough to be willing to give up some gadgets and live simpler lives.

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