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She's Never Giving Up

image of Shelley Smithson
NO MONKEYING AROUND The singer/writer/agitator bonded with like-minded author Abbey in the 1960s.
For 92-year-old activist Katie Lee, the Colorado River is more than just a cause -- it's a muse

There's a time each evening when 92-year-old Katie Lee stares out her window in Jerome,
Arizona, and is transported into the past. It's 1954, and the 35-year-old Lee is on one of her early trips down the Colorado River, in the heart of southern Utah's scenic Glen Canyon. Her reverie takes her back to the amber light that filtered through the trees in the main canyon and dozens of smaller side canyons. She recalls the majestic red rocks: rocks that are now completely submerged beneath the cold, glassy surface of Lake Powell, the reservoir that resulted from the damming of the river at Glen Canyon in the mid-1960s.

Strangely, Lee says, she never dreams of the river. "And I finally figured out why: it's on my mind all day anyway." She's sitting in her home office, nearly 200 miles south of the dam whose destruction was piously prayed for by a character in Edward Abbey's 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Near the window there's a photo of Lee -- holding a monkey wrench in one hand, dynamite in the other -- with a mischievous gleam in her eyes. That gleam can still be detected all these many years later, as she describes a life encompassing an early acting career in Hollywood; traveling the coffeehouse circuit as a folk singer; inclusion in a coterie of activists at the environmental movement's nascence; and her current role as the (unquestionably) senior-most advisory board member of the Glen Canyon Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the restoration of a free-flowing Colorado.

In the 1940s and '50s, Lee had bit parts in movies and larger recurring roles on radio shows (The Great Gildersleeve, Gordon MacRae's The Railroad Hour) before deciding that singing, rather than acting, was what she wanted to do most. Her friend Burl Ives persuaded her to pick up a guitar and take up the life of a folksinger, a decade-long career that brought her into contact with a band of activists who were protesting the Bureau of Reclamation's plan to build the Glen Canyon Dam. That group included not only Abbey but also Friends of the Earth founder David Brower, who fought bitterly with the bureau in the years leading up to the dam's completion.

By then, Lee had already left Hollywood and returned to her native Arizona. She took the bureau's actions personally. Once the Colorado began backing up, its warm waters eventually turned so cold that native fish became endangered downstream in the Grand Canyon; the glorious red rock formations disappeared. In addition to making the rounds of public hearings, Lee channeled her anger into songs like "Rapids Ahead" and "When the Colorado Rises," both of which appeared on her 1964 album Folk Songs of the Colorado River.

Richard Ingebretsen, who founded the Glen Canyon Institute with Brower in 1996, calls Lee the heart of the organization. "You couldn't have a Glen Canyon movement without Katie Lee," he says. "Her passion has been unabated throughout the years."

When Lee speaks at the institute's board meetings and events, "she makes us toe the line," says founding board member Ed Dobson. "She's always in our ears, telling us what's right and wrong."

Even into her tenth decade of life, Lee hasn't stopped writing, singing, or speaking out: in her albums and performances; in books, like her memoir Glen Canyon Betrayed (2006); in the many documentaries she's participated in (including the 1997 PBS mini-series "Cadillac Desert," based on the best-selling book about western water struggles); and in her advisory role with the Glen Canyon Institute. She's unforgiving of the government agencies that dammed her river and dismissive of their newest plan for it, which would attempt to aid Grand Canyon fish populations and restore eroded beaches by releasing water and sediment from Lake Powell in a managed flood.

The only surefire way to save beaches and native fish habitat, Lee says, would be to remove the dam -- an option that even many sympathizers say is impractical and unlikely. But if the government won't do it, says Lee, then the ever-rising wall of sediment that's piling up against the dam itself might do it instead. "I think Mother Nature will take it," she says. "They can't stop it. The river is eating around the dam already."

Lee knows that her dream probably won't be coming true anytime soon. Still, she adds, "I'd like to be around to see it happen," The gleam in her eyes grows ever so slightly. "I'd like to give it a little help."

image of Shelley Smithson
Shelley Smithson is a freelance journalist in Flagstaff, Arizona, who writes about the American Southwest, including energy development, water scarcity, immigration, and Native American communities. Her work has appeared in The Nation, the Village Vo... READ MORE >