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Welcome to the Funhouse

Column by George Sibley

Development – June 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS like the best thing to do would be to just laugh out loud. Everybody all together, although not at each other — or at anyone else — but just about the strange situations we’ve all gotten ourselves into. A good laugh might be the first step in getting beyond these situations. But of course some will say that these things are no laughing matter.

Prairie dogs, for example. For well over a century, Westerners have been doing everything that human ingenuity can think of to eradicate this so-called pest. But now we have finally succeeded so well here in the Upper Gunnison that we have made the prairie dog a Threatened Species.

It turns out that, because of some geographic barriers, prairie dogs in our valley — and sage grouse too, and heaven knows what else — have been evolving as a subspecies found nowhere else. So our remaining prairie dogs are on the verge of being Protected under the Endangered Species Act. Thus the once reviled prairie dog joins the snail darter, the spotted owl, the devil pupfish and our own special sage grouse in the vanguard of the effort to control the growth we don’t want but can’t figure out how to live without.

Recently, a colony of our special prairie dogs, which the city had been trying to eradicate for years, almost stopped a development for a while — a potential humiliation for the city in the eyes of the West’s real men (Dick Cheney, Gale Norton, et cetera) that was only averted by an elaborate process of moving the colony (not the development) to a new site.

Now a similar but even thornier situation has emerged west of Gunnison, where the Gunnison River drops into its canyons. The Bureau of Reclamation has built three big storage and hydropower dams in the upper canyons — the Wayne Aspinall Unit of the Colorado River Storage Project. The purpose of this project is to regulate and store the waters of a once erratic and rambunctious river, and release that water strategically to generate premium peaking power for the southwestern electric grid.

But the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park lies just below the last dam, and the mission of the National Park system is to preserve and protect the natural ecosystems within the park for posterity. And the natural ecosystems of the Black Canyon basically evolved around the central fact of — what else — an erratic and rambunctious river that flooded every spring when the mountain snowpack melted, which resulted in a dark, scoured and mostly barren canyon.

In the years since the dams went in, controlling and regulating that once erratic and rambunctious river, all manner of vegetation has been sneaking into the canyon, and debris washing in from the side canyons has caused some new pooling. From the perspective of fishermen, climbers, serious hikers, and tourists falling off the rim, this is not all bad, but from the Park Service perspective, it ain’t natural. And the Park Service has an unquantified reserved water right on the river that predates the Bureau of Reclamation’s water right for the Aspinall Unit by 20-some years (not to mention the water rights of a lot of the ranchers in the Upper Gunnison).

SO THE PARK SERVICE, this January, filed in water court to quantify that reserved right, and it requests that its brother organization in the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation, temporarily suspend its mission of regulation and power production every spring — the real water-storage season — to release enough water to recreate a semblance of the old pre-dam canyon-flushing spring floods.

A society able to appreciate true irony — “an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected, and the incongruity of this” (Webster) — might get a kick out of this kind of thing. But since both situations — threatened prairie dogs threatening development, and the right hand of the Department of the Interior not knowing what the left hand is doing — involve the economy at all levels, they are no Laughing Matter.

The Park Service has said that it wants to try to negotiate the situation to more or less satisfy everyone concerned, but 383 individuals and entities — upstream, downstream, and even from outside the basin — have lined up on both sides of the Black Canyon situation. And that’s a lot of people (each and every one convinced they’re right) to get around the table.

But really, fundamentally, at the heart of it aren’t these things funny? Really funny? The jokes are on all of us and of such dimensions that they sort of invite us, or challenge us, to grow large enough to laugh about them. If we can’t see the essential underlying humor first, before we sit down to serious negotiations, I seriously doubt we’ll resolve much.

There’s an old saying: Those who laugh last, laugh best. But a truer saying might be shorter: Those who laugh, last.

George Sibley writes and teaches in Gunnison, which got only six inches of snow in the Big May Dump of ’01.