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Turning Man-Made Creations Back to Nature

Sierra Club suggestion to drain Lake Powell is latest effort to erase human impact.

When the youthful president of the Sierra Club tilted his lance at one of the largest public-works projects in the United States, it was perhaps inevitable that it should end up in splinters.

At a congressional hearing in Washington earlier this week, everyone from canoe outfitters to congressmen gave a resounding "no" to the organization's proposal to drain Lake Powell - the nation's second-largest man-made lake. Indeed, to some, the idea of breaching Arizona's Glen Canyon Dam to turn the area back into a natural river canyon is akin to taking apart the Empire State Building.

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But in fact, taking out dams that are economically or environmentally detrimental is not such a far-fetched idea. From Oregon to Maine, it's happening more and more. And it's part of a broader movement - not only to stop long-standing practices but to reverse them, in some cases by turning man-made creations back to their natural state.

In some cases, the effort is strictly the result of environmental activism.

For example, some conservation groups in the West have been bidding against ranchers on federal land leases that for generations have been used only for grazing.

These groups have no plans to become cowboys in Birkenstocks, of course. Instead, activists want to ban the cattle and sheep that naturalist John Muir once called "hoofed locusts" so the arid ranges can revert to a more natural state and thereby help the recovery of native plants and animals - some of which are in danger of extinction.

In a less-controversial version of this tactic, groups like The Nature Conservancy have been working with some ranchers to protect wetlands and other cattle-damaged areas. In some cases, they have provided economic help to struggling ranchers in return for agreements to banish cows from certain environmentally sensitive areas.

In other parts of the West, the United States Forest Service for several years now has been obliterating many more miles of old logging roads than it has been bulldozing new ones. The agency is using as much as $5 million a year in road-maintenance funding to tear out the roads and relandscape the terrain to benefit such things as grizzly bears, whose habitat is being encroached upon by poachers and recreationists who continue to use the roads long after the loggers have left.

"I like to think of it as stabilization and decommissioning," says Forest Service engineer Skip Coghlan. For fiscal year 1998, says Mr. Coghlan, the agency proposes to build 400 miles of new roads while obliterating 1,500 miles of old ones.

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The most widespread trend in reversing human impacts on the land, however, is with dams. Most well-known are the very large ones like the 710-foot dam at Glen Canyon or the nine main dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers here in the Pacific Northwest.

In all, there are nearly 75,000 dams across the United States. Many are operated by federal agencies such as the US Army Corps of Engineers or the Bureau of Reclamation. But most are privately owned dams used for hydropower, irrigation, or flood control. Of these, about 1,800 hydropower dams are licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). In 1993, the first of what will be about 900 older dams began coming up for license renewal. This gives critics a chance to pressure the FERC to remove some dams.

Last month, the commission's staff recommended that the 160-year-old Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine be removed. Environmentalists were jubilant.

"This is a tremendous victory for rivers nationwide," says Margaret Bowman, director of hydropower for the conservation group American Rivers. "FERC has finally recognized that the benefits of a healthy river are sometimes more important than a dam's nominal power generation, and with this decision, has opened the door to removing other dams across the country, which for years have destroyed fish and wildlife habitats."

There are other examples as well: The Newport No. 11 dam on the Clyde River in Vermont was removed a year ago, allowing salmon upstream for the first time in 40 years. A local irrigation district recently voted to remove the Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River in southern Oregon; this will save $4 million over projected renovation costs while allowing better passage for salmon and steelhead. And on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, two dams on the Elwha River have been targeted by Congress for removal.

There is even serious talk about breaching the very large dams on Idaho's Snake River, which have been named as major culprits in the near-extinction of some salmon species. Last November, a report commissioned by the US Army Corps of Engineers suggested that removing four of those dams would be the surest - although the most expensive - way to save the endangered fish.

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