In the mid-1960s, Congress introduced legislation to build the Marble and Bridge dams on remote and rugged canyons located just above and just below Grand Canyon National Park. The dams were intended to generate hydroelectric power and provide funds for other regional reclamation projects.
Environmental activists denounced the proposals, which would have reduced the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon to a “pitiful trickle,” according to the Sierra Club. Sierra Club executive director David Brower enlisted Freeman, Mander & Gossage, a San Francisco advertising firm, to mobilize public opinion against the projects. In a series of five advertisements, three of which are reproduced here, the Sierra Club questioned the rationale for the two dams and urged the public to pressure national leaders to withdraw their support.
The Sierra Club’s advertisements leaned heavily on the importance of maintaining the integrity of the Grand Canyon as a wild and scenic landscape. When dam proponents said that the raised waters would allow tourists a better view of the stunning landscape, the Sierra Club famously countered, “Should we flood the Sistine Chapel, so tourists can get closer to the ceiling?” Opponents of the dams also argued that evaporation and silting would render the dams ineffective.
In response to the advertising campaign, which swamped Congressional offices with mail opposing the dam proposals, the Internal Revenue Service stripped the Sierra Club of its tax-exempt status, declaring that the organization had crossed a line by seeking to directly influence legislation. Ultimately, neither dam was built. In 1968, the Marble Canyon site became part of a new national monument, and then added to an enlarged Grand Canyon National Park in 1975.
In more recent years, critics have noted the trade-off made to protect Grand Canyon. In lieu of hydroelectric power from the two dams, highly polluting coal-fired power from the Navajo Generating Station provided crucial energy for Phoenix and the rapidly growing Southwest.
Credit for the advertisements: Sierra Club, David Brower, Freeman, Mander & Gossage, and Jerry Mander. Graphic design by Marget Larsen.
Sierra Club Grand Canyon Ad, “Should We Also Flood the Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer the Ceiling,” New York Times, 1966.