The Book As Political Weapon

Books are not just informative. Sometimes they can be political weapons.

This Is Dinosaur edited by Wallace Stegner is just such an example. The book was published by Knopf in 1955 with a foreword by Stegner who also contributed the first chapter, The Marks of Human Passage. Other contributors are Alfred A. Knopf, the book’s publisher, Eliot Blackwelder, Robert Lister, Otis “Dock” Marston, David Bradley, Olasus Murie, and Joseph W. Penfold. The book is illustrated with color and b&w photos, including a color double-spread title page photo by Martin Litton.


Front of book

Front of book

Some background. The Bureau of Reclamation within the Eisenhower administration had proposed to build dams in Echo Park within Dinosaur National Monument which straddles Utah and Colorado near their border with Wyoming. The dams would have destroyed the monument. Stegner and other conservationists believed it was worth saving and that this plan was just the initial attempt “to infringe the sanctity of parks….It could build dams with a much freer hand and have to compromise less with other interests if it could break down the national parks immunity.”

Leading up to this book Stegner had published articles on this subject in “Sports Illustrated.” David Brower, executive director of The Sierra Club, saw these articles and was convinced that Stegner should edit This Is Dinosaur. Stegner’s biographer, Jackson J. Benson, reported that this was “the first time that all the major conservation organizations had come together in one cause to show their muscle in a matter of pending legislation.”

Brower liked Stegner’s way with words. Stegner concludes his chapter contribution by writing, “In the decades to come, it will not be only the buffalo and the trumpeter swan who need sanctuaries. Our own species is going to need them too….It needs them now.”

The book was conceived by Brower who brought the idea to Knopf. Brower wanted a more aggressive approach, but Stegner convinced him that a more moderate approach would win more vote in Congress. In fact, every member of Congress received a copy of the book. Knopf also wanted a more muscular approach, but Stegner, always a man of moderation, convinced them otherwise. Part of their settlement was the decision to include a pamphlet in the book (What Is Your Stake in Dinosaur?) that Benson said “would attack the motives and arguments of the dam boosters, while maintaining the ‘air of probity’ of the book itself.”



It worked. The dams were not build. The monument was preserved. Additionally, as Benson has written, ”It was the first time these (conservationist) organizations had tasted victory in such a major political, and it led them to take a more political activist stance in the future.”


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