Forward to a Past When All Was in Harmony nTC

April 06, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

Washington. -- Bruce Babbitt is a dam fool.

The secretary of the interior (and former governor of Arizona) has always impressed me as an admirable and progressive fellow in most every way one can evaluate a public official -- except for the fact that he seems determined to roll back the history and progress of science and technology.

What set me off on this tirade is Mr. Babbitt's determination to tear down a goodly number of the dams that have been built on American rivers over the past 200 years or so. There are more than 75,000 of them, some publicly constructed and operated, some private, built to hold back fresh water on its way to the sea and use that water later for drinking, for irrigation, for flood control, and to generate electricity.

Who can be against that? Romantics hostile to technology, drawn nostalgically to the notion that nature is more benevolent than man, especially the men who altered (or tamed) some of nature's more destructive impacts -- and brother Babbitt appears to be one of those. He seems to feel he has as much right to play God as men (and beavers) have since they first discovered they did not get much but good views from water that had already passed them by.

This is what Secretary Babbitt said when he recently proposed that two dams in the state of Washington should be destroyed to return the rivers and land around them to their ''natural'' state:

''We now have to go back and see if we can find the equilibrium. . . . We didn't think much about wildlife values and salmon and the environment in the process [of damming the rivers].''

''Go back'' to what? Go back to when? Should we go back to, say, 1920? Should we go back to before the white man came to the Americas with his fancy ideas? Should we go back to before any man or woman came? Should we try a ''Jurassic Park'' scenario and go back to the days of dinosaurs on the Olympic Peninsula?

Who decides when nature was in equilibrium or when life was best for salmon? Secretary Bruce Babbitt? Secretary James Watt? Native Americans?

The life and loves of salmon are at the heart of the reasons Mr. Babbitt would like to tear down the 67-year-old, 210-foot-high Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River, once a salmon spawning paradise on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. The second would be the older Elwha dam 20 miles farther down the same river.

In one set of old days, before paper companies built those dams, the river's salmon population was four times what it is now. Of course, there was a time, longer ago, when there were no salmon at all in the river. Should we go back to that, Mr. Secretary?

I bring a bias to these matters that I should state here.

I graduated from college, from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, as a mechanical engineer and worked at it for a while before moving on and becoming a newspaper reporter. Since then, I have always been amazed and depressed by the ignorance and the hostility toward science and technology by the people I work with and officials I generally admire.

I have been in many, many rooms where I have been the only person ready to defend the space program or genetic research, to pick two examples. Educated people I know are ever ready to defend literature or any other art pushing the limits of the human dialogue, but seem perfectly willing to advocate what amounts to censorship of scientific research or the burning of books, as long as they are technical books.

Years ago, I was drawn briefly into a controversy involving a proposed highway across the state of Vermont. All the right people, my friends, saw the thing as a scar across a sylvan landscape, an affront to nature -- and to the New Yorkers who could afford summer homes in the mountains and were concerned that ''progress'' would spoil their views.

But the people who lived there -- where the unemployment rate was, as I recall, well over 20 percent -- did want the highway, desperately; they wanted to be connected to the modern world and all its amenities that the summer people pretended to be escaping from. A day into protest, I realized I was on the wrong side -- and it was time to go back home.

There are, I am sure, hundreds, perhaps thousands of dams and some roads, too, that should be torn down or pushed out -- because they have outlived their usefulness. But tear dams down to roll back time? That seems as foolish to me as destroying automobiles or air conditioners because they pollute, jet planes because they scare birds, or antibiotics because they, too, have unpleasant side effects.

Go back? To what? Perhaps those romantics who think the past was so great should be condemned to live in it.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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