Echo Park Dam Proposal Is Defeated Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Conservation groups defeated proposals to build a large dam within the boundaries of Dinosaur National Monument in western Colorado, thereby preserving the land and strengthening the presumption that national parks and monuments should not be developed.

Summary of Event

The defeat of the proposed dam at Dinosaur National Monument marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement in the United States. This test case for the protection of a National Park Service natural area united more than twenty-five conservation groups, sharpened their political skills, and challenged the economic viability of large dams in the western United States. [kw]Echo Park Dam Proposal Is Defeated (Apr. 11, 1956) [kw]Dam Proposal Is Defeated, Echo Park (Apr. 11, 1956) Echo Park dam Dams Dinosaur National Monument National monuments, U.S.;Dinosaur Conservation;public land Echo Park dam Dams Dinosaur National Monument National monuments, U.S.;Dinosaur Conservation;public land [g]North America;Apr. 11, 1956: Echo Park Dam Proposal Is Defeated[05170] [g]United States;Apr. 11, 1956: Echo Park Dam Proposal Is Defeated[05170] [c]Environmental issues;Apr. 11, 1956: Echo Park Dam Proposal Is Defeated[05170] [c]Business and labor;Apr. 11, 1956: Echo Park Dam Proposal Is Defeated[05170] Brower, David Zahniser, Howard Clinton Gabrielson, Ira N.

In 1940, the Bureau of Reclamation Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. began laying plans to store the waters of the upper basin of the Colorado River. When the plans were finished in 1950, the bureau recommended building five large dams that would store more than thirty-seven million acre-feet (one acre-foot equals 43,560 square feet covered by 12 inches of water) and generate about sixteen hundred megawatts of electricity. One of the five dams—Echo Park—was located within Dinosaur National Monument. The monument is a 209,000-acre expanse of deep, colorful canyons and plateaus originally set aside by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 because of its fossil dinosaur bone quarry. President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the monument to its present size in 1938.

Until the controversy, Dinosaur National Monument’s canyons and plateaus were largely unknown. The first record of the exploration of the Green River was written by John Wesley Powell Powell, John Wesley in 1869. Powell’s expedition descended the Green and Colorado rivers in four wooden boats. After losing one of the boats and much of their supplies in Lodore Canyon, Powell’s expedition reached Echo Park on June 18. They camped and rested in the flat, grassy park where the Yampa River entered the Green River and named the place for the echoes that answered their voices.

With the exception of the dinosaur fossil quarry, which is easily reached from Vernal, Utah, most of the monument was undeveloped. Rough roads led to the edges of the canyons, and relatively few people braved the whitewater rivers in boats. In 1953, about five hundred people (more than the known total from the preceding ten years) went through the canyons by boat, and about twenty-two thousand visited the dinosaur quarry. These numbers nearly doubled in 1954, as the controversy over Echo Park brought the area sudden fame. The proposed dam near the Utah-Colorado border would have backed water sixty-three miles up the Green River and forty-four miles up the Yampa River, eliminating most of the rapids and covering the canyon walls to a depth of about five hundred feet.

The states that share the upper basin of the Colorado River—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico—began negotiating a compact to allocate the river’s waters in 1946. Irrigators in central Utah were particularly interested in acquiring water from the Yampa River in western Colorado. With a dam near Echo Park, the irrigators could transfer water from eastern Utah’s Uintah basin over the Wasatch Front to central Utah. The water from the Yampa would replace the Uintah basin water already used by farmers in the region.

The Upper Basin Compact was approved in 1948 and became effective in 1949. In 1950, the Bureau of Reclamation circulated initial plans for the Colorado River Storage Project Colorado River Storage Project , which would eventually include the Flaming Gorge, Glen Canyon, Navajo, and Curecanti dams. The plan was projected to cost $1.3 billion in 1950, an enormous sum of money that was the eventual source of much of the opposition to the plan.

The Bureau of Reclamation proposed paying for the project through a complicated financial plan. Irrigators would be allowed a “suitable” period to develop farms before they would be required to make payments. For fifty years thereafter, they would pay as much toward the irrigation portion of the project as they were able but would not be charged interest. Electrical generation would pay the costs of power production and transmission, as well as the unpaid irrigation costs. The Echo Park project, including an additional dam within the monument at Split Mountain, and the Glen Canyon project would produce most of the water storage and electricity.

In April, 1950, Interior Secretary Oscar Chapman Chapman, Oscar held hearings on the proposed Echo Park dam; in late June, he approved the Bureau of Reclamation’s plan to circulate its proposal within the department. In January, 1951, Chapman fired Newton B. Drury Drury, Newton B. , the director of the National Park Service. Although the firing was probably not directly related to the Echo Park controversy, the timing inflamed conservationists, who believed there was a connection.

In December, 1952, Secretary Chapman forwarded the bureau’s proposal for Echo Park to President Harry S. Truman and recommended that the secretary of the interior be authorized to construct the dam under the provisions of the Reclamation Act. By late 1953, the new secretary of the interior, Douglas McKay McKay, Douglas , recommended that a request for funding the proposed dam be submitted to Congress.

In 1954, both the Senate and House Subcommittees on Irrigation and Reclamation House Subcommittee on Irrigation and Reclamation Senate Subcommittee on Irrigation and Reclamation held hearings on the Colorado River Storage Project and approved them, but the full House and Senate failed to take action. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;environmental policy requested authorization for the project; the Senate approved his request, but heavy lobbying by conservationists led to a House bill that did not include the project.

Faced with strong national opposition to Echo Park, irrigation proponents in the upper basin agreed to drop the Echo Park proposal for fear it would block approval of the larger plan. On March 29, 1956, Congress approved the Upper Colorado Storage Project, including the Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge, Navajo, and Curecanti dams; the legislation, however, included the phrase “no dam or reservoir authorized by the Act shall be constructed within a National Park or Monument.” The bill became law on April 11, 1956, as the Colorado River Storage Project Act.


Opposition to the Echo Park dam and the larger storage project came from a coalition of three interests: the preservationists, whose arguments focused on the idea of wilderness and technical challenges to the Bureau of Reclamation’s project analysis; those who were concerned about the budgetary impacts of such a large project; and development advocates in Southern California, who were competing for Colorado River water to quench the thirsts of desert agriculture and urban development.

The preservation movement had suffered a major setback when the Hetch Hetchy Dam was built within Yosemite National Park beginning in 1914. Construction of a second dam within a national park or monument would set a further precedent for development rather than for preservation. Similar proposals existed for dams within Kings Canyon, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Parks.

The leaders of about twenty-five preservation organizations formed a coalition to organize opposition to the Eisenhower administration’s policy of developing public lands, including the Echo Park proposal. Howard Clinton Zahniser of the Wilderness Society Wilderness Society , Ira Gabrielson of the Wildlife Management Institute Wildlife Management Institute , and David Brower of the Sierra Club Sierra Club Environmental organizations played particularly important roles in galvanizing the preservation opposition. Active groups within the coalition included the National Wildlife Federation, the Izaak Walton League, the National Parks Association (later the National Parks and Conservation Association), the Wildlife Management Institute, and the Audubon Society.

Because there was no officially recognized wilderness system until 1964, protection of the area within the national monument was particularly important to the preservation interests. Many people characterized the controversy as a showdown. The preservationists suggested that the decision about Echo Park would settle, once and for all, the wilderness debate in the United States.

The preservationists gained financial support from Edward C. Mallinckrodt Mallinckrodt, Edward C., Jr. , Jr., a wealthy chemical manufacturer and Sierra Club member, and they used their resources to fund a particularly effective media campaign. Brower, Wallace Stegner, Bernard De Voto, and other noted authors produced books, newspaper and magazine articles, and films to explain the importance of preserving Echo Park. De Voto’s “Shall We Let Them Ruin Our National Parks?” "Shall We Let Them Ruin Our National Parks?" (DeVoto)[Shall We Let Them Ruin Our National Parks] appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in July, 1950, evoking widespread public opposition to the proposed dam. The preservationists were also able to secure favorable coverage from The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Life, Collier’s, Newsweek, and Reader’s Digest. The use of mass media to promulgate the preservationists’ point of view became a hallmark of the environmental movement that grew in the 1960’s and matured in the 1970’s.

Brower was particularly effective in challenging the bureau’s estimates of water losses through evaporation at alternative reservoir sites. Storage reservoirs in desert regions are particularly vulnerable to water loss through evaporation. In their testimony, bureau officials stressed that if Echo Park was excluded from the project, it would mean the loss of 350,000 acre-feet of water through evaporation. Brower exposed errors in the bureau’s calculations for Echo Park and for an alternative of a higher Glen Canyon Dam. The errors caused embarrassment to the bureau and weakened its case in the eyes of the public and some members of Congress.

Additional opposition to the larger Colorado River Storage Project came from those who questioned the economics behind such a large public undertaking. Economists and some politicians questioned the Bureau of Reclamation’s economic analysis of the proposed projects including the use of a basin-wide accounting system—in which stronger projects “carried” those that were not cost-effective on their own—the advisability of expanding agricultural production in the upper basin through public subsidy, the use of electrical generation to pay irrigation costs, and the fact that irrigators would not pay interest on irrigation costs.

Careful analysis of the project’s cost-effectiveness revealed significant problems. Developing new agricultural lands in the relatively cold and arid upper basin would be an expensive public investment. Given the financial constraints of the early Cold War period, it was relatively easy for legislators from outside the West to oppose such an expensive regional project. In the wake of the Echo Park dispute, the use of economic analysis became an increasingly important tactic of environmentalists opposed to large federal development projects.

Finally, developers in Southern California opposed the larger Colorado River Storage Project. Completion of the Boulder Canyon project (Hoover Dam) made water and power available for agriculture, industry, and domestic use in the desert of Southern California. The Colorado River Compact Colorado River Compact (1922) of 1922 had divided the river into upper and lower basins, with the boundary at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, the site of the proposed Glen Canyon Dam. Developers in Southern California were concerned that a large storage project in the upper basin might reduce the quality and quantity of water available to them. As a result, they pursued a well-funded public relations campaign designed to defeat the upper-basin storage project, including the Echo Park dam.

The combination of these three sources of opposition was enough to defeat the Echo Park dam proposal, but the balance of the larger project was completed. Preservationists chose to limit their opposition to Echo Park rather than to attack the larger development project. In retrospect, some environmentalists consider that decision a mistake. When Glen Canyon Dam was completed, the reservoir inundated hundreds of miles of uniquely beautiful canyons that few people had visited. The loss of Glen Canyon became a symbol to modern environmentalists on the Colorado Plateau, just as Hetch Hetchy had become a symbol to earlier preservationists.

Many environmental historians mark the Echo Park fight as a landmark in the developing environmental movement. The twin tactics of mass media use to influence public opinion and critical economic analysis to undermine large public development projects were successfully used many times in following years. Echo Park dam Dams Dinosaur National Monument National monuments, U.S.;Dinosaur Conservation;public land

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blackstock, Alan, ed. A Green River Reader. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005. General history of the Green River and its denizens and explorers. Includes two essays about the Echo Park project. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McPhee, John. Encounters with the Archdruid. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. An exploration of David Brower’s personality. The third section, which contrasts Brower with Reclamation Commissioner Floyd Dominy, is particularly instructive with regard to Western water development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. Presents the development of the concept of “wilderness” and the importance of Echo Park in the larger scheme of wilderness protection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert. New York: Viking Penguin, 1986. A pointed and thorough journalistic analysis of the costs of water development in the western United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, Elmo R. Dams, Parks, and Politics: Resource Development and Preservation in the Truman-Eisenhower Era. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1973. A review of the larger political and policy issues associated with conservation in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stegner, Wallace. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. An essential source for biographical information on John Wesley Powell by an author whose works define the region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stratton, Owen, and Phillip Sirotkin. The Echo Park Controversy. University: University of Alabama Press, 1959. A detailed case study of the administrative policy process used in the Echo Park decision.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyant, William K. Westward in Eden. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. An accessible, balanced treatment of the history of public lands and the conservation movement.

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Categories: History