Thomas Moran's "The Chasm of the Colorado" hangs in the Smithsonian Institution in our nation's capital, the symbol of all that is pristine, haunting, and beautiful in our land. More than 100 years after the celebrated 19th-century artist finished that work, however, few of Grand Canyon National Park's 4.8 million yearly visitors can view the same panoramas Moran depicted. Our national treasure is degraded by man-made pollution 90 percent of the year.
Fifty years ago, Mary Austin, in "Land of Journey's Ending," wrote of the Grand Canyon's "Cliffs burning red from within; the magical, shifting shadows, the vast downthrow of Kaibab, grape-colored with a bloom on it of refracted light." It is good you can't see it today, Ms. Austin.
"Is the Grand Canyon truly the 'locus Dei'? Perhaps so," Edward Abbey penned in his diary. "The gorge and the God-term have much in common - both are vast, awesome, incomprehensible." And today, it is in trouble.
"Leave it as it is," intoned Theodore Roosevelt after his first glimpse. "The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."
Grand Canyon not alone
And Moran's chasm is not the only jewel in the US national park system that is dulled and darkened by the effluent of automobiles and coal-fired power plants, blown in from California, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Other parks, like Canyonlands and Arches and Mesa Verde, are experiencing dramatic reductions in visibility, too.
Seeing comes before words. A baby sees and distinguishes people, trees, and animals before it can talk. Will the eight Western governors who sit on the Grand Canyon Visibility Transport Commission, created by Congress in 1991, rely on that power of perception?
Will they grasp the economic implications of continued damage before giving final recommendations to the Environmental Protection Agency in June on reducing regional haze and preventing future degradation? Why would New Englanders spend money to make the trek if they can't see across the chasm?
The chances are far better if the governors take seriously the experiences of artists who have filed with the commission their views about the state of air quality in the Four Corners area of the Southwest.
With a business-as-usual air, power companies and other industrial interests assert that regional haze is well under control. How fitting it is that their assertions are contradicted by the evidence offered by a number of modern-day artists who base their views on recent personal experience - fitting because artists brought the region to the attention of the world in the first place.
Take Curt Walters, who is based in Sedona, Ariz. He is one of the nation's leading impressionists of Western landscapes, creator of hundreds of oils of the Grand Canyon. He insists that serious debate about vanishing vistas should have ended years ago: "Every year, I have seen growing deterioration. I see less and less pollution-free days."
When Mr. Walters first saw the Grand Canyon 25 years ago, there were no greenish colors on the bizarre formations that explorer and scientist John Wesley Powell called "the library of the Gods." Nowadays, ancient violets and blues are turning greenish in the yellow haze from 17 coal-fired electric power plants on the Colorado Plateau.
Power-company assertions that most of the haze problem is caused by dust make Arizonan Robert Clemenz and his wife, Sue, wince in disbelief. Together, they have made their living for years writing and photographing vistas, rivers, and canyons on the Colorado Plateau.
"As a photographer," Mr. Clemenz wrote to the commission, "I am constantly aware of the quality of light and air. The last time we visited the North Rim for a shoot, we could not photograph at all due to the air quality, which was yellow, milky, the worst we have seen."
Unless the commission recommends strong actions, agrees Karen Licher, an artist in Arizona's Verde Valley, "people will most likely forget the clarity and magnificence which could once be taken for granted."
Not activists, but active
These creative people are not political activists. But they have joined the policy debate, along with Flagstaff-based photographer Tom Bean, who has urged the commission to "restore the clean air that used to be the rule at Grand Canyon."
Will the commission possess the political will to take strong action? Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Robert Arnberger, who laments the scarcity of strong conservation voices, welcomes these artists to the battle for clean air in parks and wilderness areas. "There will be a group of people in another generation who will not have the memories of pristine visibility," he says. "They will be given what we choose to give them and their memories will begin from that time. Will our grandchildren be able to enjoy majestic vistas? Only if the commission acts."
The role of the artist, the writer, the painter, as poet and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams told an interviewer recently, "is to place a mirror before the injustices of society so that the images bypass the intellect and pierce the heart."