Conservationists lost a true hero this month. Katie Lee was a feisty no-holds-barred champion of wild places in general, and western rivers in particular. Her main focus for the last half century was the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and the natural and cultural treasures that were sacrificed as a result.
The 700-foot tall dam constructed in the late 1950s and early 1960s submerged Glen Canyon—a wonderland of serpentine side canyons, sublime waterfalls, shady groves, and sculpted slick rock cliffs. Few people knew Glen Canyon at all, and fewer as intimately as the folk singer/poet turned environmental activist, Ms. Lee. Thus the uproar was not loud enough to prevent the Bureau of Reclamation and their political allies from building their towering impediment to a free-flowing Colorado River.
Future generations will be the ones to decide if the merits of the dam (electricity generation, flood control, “guaranteed” water for agriculture and urban growth) outweigh the significant ecological and archaeological downstream impact on the Grand Canyon and beyond. If the answer comes back “no”, then Katie Lee’s legacy as a defender of sacred spaces will grow even larger.
I met Katie at a book signing event in Telluride, CO, some years ago. I’d seen her talk on several occasions, and enjoyed her passion and prose. But I found myself tongue-tied standing before her as she sat behind tidy stacks of her various titles. She somewhat impatiently endured my flattery and attempts to identify mutual acquaintances. In her defense the line behind me was quickly growing. She signed a copy of her 1998 volume written with Terry Tempest Williams, All My Rivers are Gone: A Journey of Discovery through Glen Canyon, and off I went to the cash register.
The Jerome, AZ, native passed away recently, at the ripe age of ninety-eight. She was born the year Grand Canyon received national park status through the stroke of President Woodrow Wilson’s pen. She dedicated her life to the understanding, celebration, and protection of some of the nation’s most priceless natural treasures.
Rather than try to encapsulate her life myself, I’ll defer to one of the many tributes written by those who knew her best (see link below). My hope is that each of us will pick up Lee’s torch at this time in history when some of the most iconic and untouched landscapes of the desert Southwest are once again under siege by big business and federal interests. RIP Katie.