A River of Words
How a New Yorker essay helped save a river from destruction -- and one Penn alumnus from a career in law.
By Dennis Drabelle
It's been almost 17 years since I left the law for a career as a writer and editor. The transition was rough: the predictable plunge in income, the inevitable floundering as you take up a new profession and fashion a new way of working (I am the best of bosses and the worst of bosses -- my own), the dismay of relatives. My father, for one, could never understand why I "wasted" my law-school education at Penn (Class of 1969). Yet I also have a master's in English from the University (Class of 1966), and he never worried about my wasting that.
I tried to tell him that practicing law proved to be less engaging than studying it with Paul Bender and Paul Mishkin and Robert Gorman and several other stimulating profs teaching at Penn in the late sixties. But Dad's young manhood had coincided with the Depression, and he didn't have much sympathy for "less engaging." What I should have told him is that I'd always wanted to write and wasn't sure why I enrolled in law school in the first place. Maybe I just wasn't ready to start real life yet. Or maybe I sensed that immersion in the law's rigors and practicalities would make me a broader, savvier writer, as I hope it has.
In law school I daydreamed of combining the two disciplines -- law and literature, which was the title of a fat paperback I bought and dipped into as time permitted. It contained an excerpt from Holmes's The Common Law, one of Rebecca West's reports on the Nuremberg Trials, Auden's poem "Law Like Love," and much more. And it implied that you could be both a man of letters and a servant of the law. My chance came a few years after graduation, in a way I never expected.
During my time at Penn Law, the air was saturated with sixties idealism, and I interviewed only for jobs with the federal government (which, at least on the domestic front, was still widely considered a force for good). After graduation I went directly to Washington to work for the Federal Communications Commission and then the Interior Department, where, in 1974, I became counsel to the assistant secretary who supervises parks and wildlife: the incumbent was a conservation-minded Florida Republican named Nathaniel Reed.
One of the projects I inherited was a $100-million dam to be built on the Meramec River in Missouri (my home state), about 65 miles southwest of St. Louis. Our office was involved as the federal wildlife advocate: the impounded river would have drowned caves sheltering the endangered Indiana bat. As he handed over the case-file, the man I was replacing admitted he hadn't made much headway with it. Federal agents were already buying up land, and "everybody" supported the dam: the Army Corps of Engineers, which was champing to build it; Governor Christopher Bond, who saw it as bully for business; and the state congressional delegation, which was keen to deliver it as pork. "Everybody" was on board, that is, but some stubborn local landowners and conservationists.
In today's climate of budget-cutting and distrust of grandiose federal projects, it's hard to remember that a generation ago mighty forces were lined up behind dam-construction -- local boosters and land speculators, bacon-bearing politicians, empire-building engineers. (Jimmy Carter found this out the hard way. His 1977 list of environmentally-obnoxious projects, in which dams were heavily featured, riled up so many politicians of both parties that his presidency never quite recovered.)
The powers behind Meramec Dam touted it mainly as a flood-control project, but the list of its purported benefits was swollen with all the frolicing that people would do on the lake formed by the dam -- speedboating, water-skiing, flatwater fishing, and the like. Never mind that the state was already splattered with dammed rivers and artificial lakes or that the Meramec was a swift, handsome river, flowing from the Ozarks east to the Mississippi, with its own whitewater thrills to offer. Souped-up sports were what the people craved -- or so the Corps thought.
The threat to the Meramec struck a nerve in me, especially when I found out what would happen to Green's Cave. As teenagers in the early 1960s, my buddies and I had fled the suburbs of St. Louis for parent-free weekends along the Meramec, and a highlight of those getaways had been merely standing under the stupendous, gaping entrance to Green's Cave. If the dam were built, the cave would go under. In 1974, I was still young enough to sell myself a romantic notion: I was destined to save the Meramec and its caves.
This was a tricky mission. In an administration (the Nixon-Ford) that was generally pro-development, our office functioned as a kind of environmental safety-valve, but we had to proceed gingerly about undermining an official position. Though it's safe to assume that neither president ever gave a thought to Meramec Dam, the project bore an imprimatur from the Office of Management and Budget, the president's policy-setting bureau. This left us in a tight spot.
Yet we could surely speak out on behalf of the bat and perhaps, by extension, against the dam. We could invoke the Endangered Species Act, which strongly suggested that the project must stop in its tracks, though nobody on the other side wanted to read the law that way. We could raise tough questions in letters to the Corps -- and leak these to the press. And we could call attention to the river.
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 4/14/98