Not far from the reliable salt deposit is the Sipapu, a strange and marvelous geological formation. This massive dome of travertine limestone may be the fount of a former geyser; for the Hopi it is the place where their ancestors emerged from a former world to live in this one.
I’m reluctant to write about this land because you might want to go there. Please, don’t. Certain places in this world can survive only if most of us leave them alone. Such is the case with the Little Colorado River canyon, the land of the Salt Trail, a remote, nearly empty place that is sacred to the Hopi, the Zuni and the Navajo.
Here the Little Colorado joins the main stem of the great river of the 20th century. In 1900, Los Angeles was not among the 20 largest American cities. Now it is second, watered by the Colorado. Phoenix, a desert crossroads in 1950, is now the fifth largest city, watered by the Colorado. An untamed god when John Wesley Powell explored it in 1869, today the Colorado is so dammed and diverted that it does not even dribble into the sea. It has given its life to sprout the oases, power the factories and neon the fleshpots of the Southwest.
And dreadful ideas for ravaging the Colorado continue to arrive. A Phoenix company called Pumped Hydro Storage has secured preliminary permits to build multiple dams in the sacred canyonlands of the Little Colorado. This rapacious project wears a shiny green cloak, offering itself as a massive storage system for renewable energy. Electricity from sun and wind will power pumps by day to move water from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir, and at night the water will rush back through turbines to produce electricity to light the darkness.
Original versions of the plan placed the dams directly on the Little Colorado, threatening to flood that canyon just as the incomparable Glen Canyon disappeared beneath Lake Powell in the 1960s. The latest proposal would instead fill a side canyon with water pumped from wells, thus depleting springs that feed the river. A bad idea from the past — a decommissioned coal-burning power plant nearby — would provide the transmission lines.
This is not the worst idea ever to shadow this region. The confluence of the two forks is a popular target for exploitation because it is just outside the protections of Grand Canyon National Park. Previous would-be developers envisioned a giant tramway that could carry 10,000 tourists a day down to the river and back. After years of effort by preservationists, the Navajo knocked that one down, at least for now.
My favorite Grand Canyon bard, Kevin Fedarko — author of “The Emerald Mile” — laments the toll on generations of Native Americans doomed to fight battle after battle to protect what little has not already been taken from them. Developers promote their projects as economic blessings for the tribes, but the devotion of native people to their heritage can be measured in their willingness to forgo much-needed jobs in defense of the land itself and the spirits it shelters.
“Even when they’re defeated,” Fedarko tells me of projects such as the tramway and now the dams, “the effort that it takes to fight them, the time and energy and money . . . could and should have been diverted to worthier goals.” There is defeat even in victory, he continues, because once the idea of exploiting the land is planted, it seeds additional proposals, perhaps from savvier, more tenacious developers.
“Part of the advantage of being a developer who puts forth proposals like these is that it’s possible to suffer multiple defeats, lick one’s wounds, replenish one’s war chest, and return to fight again in a cycle that can continue pretty much indefinitely,” Fedarko observes. “Conservationists, on the other hand, need only lose once, at which point whatever they’ve been fighting to protect is either irreparably harmed . . . or vanishes forever.”
Too much of U.S. history is an erasure of the older story of this magnificent continent and its original inhabitants. The drive to erase more, and more, and always more is not a manifest destiny — it is a choice. When we meet this temptation to erase, our answer should be simple.
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