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River Flowing from the Sunrise: An Environmental History of the Lower San Juan

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The authors recount twelve millennia of history along the lower San Juan River, much of it the story of mostly unsuccessful human attempts to make a living from the river's arid and fickle environment. From the Anasazi to government dam builders, from Navajo to Mormon herders and farmers, from scientific explorers to busted miners, the San Juan has attracted more attention and fueled more hopes than such a remote, unpromising, and muddy stream would seem to merit.

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1 PREHISTORY: From Clovis Hunters to Corn Farmers

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Humans have hunted and herded animals, gathered and cultivated plants, and generally made a living in the San Juan River area for at least the last twelve thousand years. Although always a marginal area, the river valley’s population reached a high point during the Anasazi occupation between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 1300.1 During this prehistoric period, the San Juan landscape was certainly no untouched Eden. To be sure, since Euro-Americans entered the San Juan country and applied the technology of the Industrial Revolution, they have changed the landscape more dramatically than both prehistoric and historic Indians. Yet, before one accounts for that massive environmental change, it is crucial to understand the roughly twelve thousand years preceding it.

Although pre-Columbian Indians in the San Juan basin manipulated their environment, the influence of climatic variation cannot be ignored. During the prehistoric period, the San Juan changed from an Ice-Age climate with cooler temperatures and much more precipitation to the drier, warmer weather it now experiences. The first recognized and established entrants into the San Juan, the Clovis hunters, and their successors, the Folsom hunters, lived during the five-hundred-to-thousand-year transition from the cool, wet Pleistocene to the warm, drier Holocene. Moreover, all the prehistoric groups that archaeologists distinguish—Clovis, Folsom, Plano, Archaic, and Anasazi—had to cope with climatic changes during their tenure on the San Juan. They all made land-use decisions based on the environmental deck nature dealt them, on the skills and tools they had to play the game, and on the imaginative and cultural ideas they brought to the table. Often they hedged their bets wisely, but other times they overplayed their hands. None of these groups lived in perfect harmony with the San Juan landscape, although the Archaic lifeway persisted longer than any other.

 

2 NAVAJOS, PAIUTES, AND UTES: Views of a Sacred Land

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Close to the time (roughly A.D. 1300) when the Anasazi abandoned their alcove dwellings and floodplain farms for lands south of the San Juan River, the tribes that would be present at the start of the historic period arrived to take their place. Fortunately, because of written records and a healthy oral tradition, there is a much better understanding of the importance of the river in the lives of these Native American groups: the Utes, Paiutes, and Navajos. All three tribes took a physical, pragmatic stance toward the river, encouraging use of the riparian ecology in a high-desert environment. They also, however, held strong beliefs about its spiritual powers, based upon mythological teachings. What follows is an overview of traditional Native American perspectives that reflects a mundane, yet sacred, relationship between the land and its people.

Let’s begin with a brief sketch of these peoples’ prehistory and early history. The Numic-speaking Paiutes and Utes were the first to arrive on the brown waters of the San Juan. Anthropologists argue about when the ancestors of these people set foot in the Four Corners area. Some believe there were two different migrations of Numic speakers, one around A.D. 1 and the second around A.D. 1150. The latter movement generally coincides with Anasazi abandonment of the San Juan basin, but evidence of turmoil between the two groups is sketchy. Other anthropologists believe the Southern Utes came much later; most agree that by the 1500s, both groups were well established in the region.1

 

3 EXPLORATION AND SCIENCE: Defining Terra Incognita

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Navajo, Ute, and Paiute sacred views of the San Juan River and its environs were about to meet their greatest challenge when the Spaniards arrived in the eighteenth century. The ways in which the Indians eventually adopted European ways of life, however, were slow and selective. In fact, the process was indirect at first because these Spanish and later American explorers never settled in the San Juan area. Nevertheless, the exploration of the San Juan basin by Spaniards and Americans from 1765 to the mid-twentieth century forms an important precursory chapter in the story of Anglo exploitation of resources that began in the late nineteenth century.

European and American exploration of the San Juan occurred during what historian William H. Goetzmann calls “the Second Great Age of Discovery.”1 An outgrowth of the European Enlightenment, this age marked the emergence of science, whose prime objective was no less than a complete empirical rendering of the planet and its peoples. Material progress was equally important. The exploration of the San Juan by geologists and archaeologists in particular contributed significantly to unraveling the great scientific issue of the later nineteenth century—time. In that sense, those scientists thrust the San Juan onto an international stage. In the mid-twentieth century, scientists with the Glen Canyon Survey put it there again. Their work established benchmarks for ecological studies and archaeological salvage operations.

 

4 LIVESTOCK: Cows, Feed, and Floods

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As the San Juan River has coursed through the Four Corners area, it has both encouraged and denied economic opportunities to Native American and Anglo-American entrepreneurs alike. Its system of canyons and floodplains offers forage for livestock, channels movement, suggests strategic locations for trade, and provides possibilities for agriculture. On the other hand, the river can swell uncontrollably to flood stage, ripping out everything in its path; it has served as a clearly defined legal boundary, restricting access to resources by people on both banks; and, due to the mere presence of its water in a desert environment, has created countless disputes over who should use it.

This chapter and the next focus on the role the river has played in two acts of the human drama staged across its narrow belt of riparian wealth. This chapter discusses the evolution of both the Navajo and Anglo livestock industry, the growth of trading posts that encouraged large herds to depend on the river’s resources, and the subsequent development of a road system to move ranching products to market. It is a multifaceted history that extends far beyond the San Juan and throughout the Four Corners region.

 

5 AGRICULTURE: Ditches, Droughts, and Disasters

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The Southwest is known for its arid climate, dramatic beauty, and turbulent weather. To the inhabitants who wrest a living from this land, its unpredictability, especially supplying water, provides one of the greatest challenges. The Colorado Plateau and the Four Corners area are consummate examples. The San Juan River is the only major, continuously flowing source of water that courses through Colorado and New Mexico and then crosses into Utah at Four Corners. Melting snows in the spring and intense thunderstorms in the summer and autumn make the river rise and fall sharply. As the moisture pours off the San Juan and Sleeping Ute Mountains in Colorado, and the La Sal and Blue Mountains in Utah, dozens of tributaries swell the tide that scours the riverbanks and tears at the floodplains.

One of the most graphic examples of this phenomenon occurred in the fall of 1941. Between September 9 and October 14, the San Juan River changed from a placid, shallow stream 3 feet deep and 125 feet wide, flowing at 635 cubic feet per second, to a raging torrent 25 feet deep and 240 feet wide, gushing at 59,600 cubic feet per second.1 The river ravaged hitherto protected floodplains, with only the highest banks able to contain the water. Few irrigation facilities and bridges survived the onslaught. The abrasive action of the stream’s sediment load widened and deepened the channel, while the suspended matter swept down the stream, depositing its refuse as the waters receded. Eventually part of the streambed refilled as the river brought in new sand, silt, and rocks, but it took years to replace what had been removed so quickly.

 

6 CITY BUILDING: Farming the Triad

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Today a traveler, coming in sight of Bluff from the desert and canyon country to the west, is struck by the contrasting redrock cliffs and gnarled, green cottonwood trees. Indeed the trees are implausible until one sees the sinuous bend of the San Juan River, snaking its way against the bank that abuts the southern bluff. The cottonwoods suck their life from the brown waters and high water table, then give it back through an exploding tangle of leaves and limbs. Certainly nothing is more pleasant than a shady retreat, leaving behind the sun, heat, and dwarfed desert growth.

More than one hundred years ago, Mormon settlers, completing their six-month trip over the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, felt the same emotions of relief. They had traversed some of the most inhospitable terrain, starting from Parowan and Cedar City in southwestern Utah, then moving across the desert of southern Utah to that narrow cleft called Hole-in-the-Rock that overlooks the Colorado River. The epic travail of building a road through a cliff and down one side of the escarpment, floating the wagons across the river, and continuing the road out of the canyon is a tale that has been told elsewhere.1 The Mormon faith in the leadership of this church-directed colonization and tenacity in facing the elements have become legendary.

 

7 MINING: Black and Yellow Gold in Redrock Country

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Once a beautiful, well-dressed woman visited the home of a powerful stranger. The master of the house invited her inside, asking who she was. She replied that she was the goddess of wealth, which pleased the master, who in turn entertained her with kindness. Soon another woman appeared, but this one was ugly and dressed in rags. The master of the house inquired her name, and she answered that she was the goddess of poverty. The man became frightened and tried to drive her away, but she hesitated to leave. She explained, “The goddess of wealth is my sister. There is an agreement between us that we are never to live separately; if you chase me out, she has to go with me.” Disregarding this advice, the master evicted the ugly woman, only to have the woman of wealth also disappear.1

Wealth and poverty have always been close relatives, as this Buddhist fable points out. There is no better historic example of this truth than the exploitative attempts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to wrest resources from the Lower San Juan River. When obtaining riches seemed possible, the desert and tortuous rocky canyons along the river became a welcome Eldorado for the miner and oil man. When mineral wealth literally did not pan out, the ugly and desolate wretch was abandoned to her own devices. The outcast river wandered along its course uninterrupted, waiting to be rediscovered.

 

8 THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: Dams, Tamarisk, and Pikeminnows

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The federal presence on the San Juan appears in the khaki-and-green uniforms of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service (NPS), the Fish and Wildlife Service, and other public-land agencies that have jurisdiction over parts of the river. Of all public-land issues, water development has loomed like the four-thousand-pound gorilla and had the greatest impact on the San Juan landscape in at least two fundamental ways. No single human activity along the river has wrought so much change in ecological processes as Navajo and Glen Canyon Dams. Moreover, concern about water was the first manifestation of the turn-of-the-century conservation movement and eventually led to the post–World War II environmental movement, which ironically gained its voice, strength, and momentum by defeating a major Colorado Basin dam at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument. A flood of environmental laws in the 1960s and ‘70s followed in the wake of the Echo Park victory. That, in turn, encouraged scientific study and a deeper understanding of the river’s ecology. Water’s story particularly is the subject of scores of books, monographs, and articles. To understand federal water development on the San Juan, however, a bit of background on the Colorado Basin is necessary.

 

9 SAN JUAN OF THE IMAGINATION: Local and National Values

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This book has focused primarily on the riparian landscape that people found along the San Juan and what they did with it. Clovis hunters stalked mammoths and mastodons and perhaps killed them to extinction. Indians, from the Clovis down to contemporary Utes, Paiutes, and Navajos, gathered ricegrass, hunted bighorn sheep, and later planted corn. Spanish and Anglo explorers and settlers introduced European-based agriculture and domestic animals. Later, Americans developed highly sophisticated technology to control water in the San Juan basin. The ripple effects of that technology—dams—are still being discovered, felt, and analyzed.

Underlying the physical adaptations are the values that shaped the day-to-day decisions people made as they lived in the San Juan area and used its resources. A particular group’s cultural values will always influence the way they interact with a landscape’s plants and animals. The first two chapters discussed the values of Indians in the Lower San Juan. Because Euro-Americans have had the greatest impact on the San Juan landscape, we have spent more time discussing it, but because more is known about their values, we haven’t talked about them. This chapter, however, will show the ways various Anglo-American mythologies have tried to illuminate and so have affected the San Juan.

 

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