Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s obsession with rivers has its headwaters in the mid-1960s, when he and his famous dad paddled along the towering walls of the Grand Canyon. Now 54 and chief prosecuting attorney for the Riverkeeper environmental alliance, he goes after river polluters nationwide with a vengeance…and returns to the Colorado River in the new IMAX movieGrand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk.
Q: Why is the Grand Canyon at risk? “Forty-five years ago, when my dad and I went down in some military-surplus pontoon rafts, we were told that we were within the first couple of hundred people who had ever been down the Grand Canyon. Before the Glen Canyon Dam was built upstream from the canyon in the 1960s, you still had these big sandbars, and we camped on them. There were eight native fish that had a healthy population; four of those are now extinct, and the others are on their way to extinction. There were colonies of mammals—beavers, muskrats, otters—that have disappeared.”
Q: What happened? “The thing that’s destroying the Grand Canyon is not the visitors. It’s the friggin’ dams. The Glen Canyon Dam at the Glen Canyon reservoir took what was a warm river and turned the Grand Canyon into a big plumbing conduit, a cold-water canal between reservoirs.”
Q: Don’t we need the dams to protect against water shortages? “There’s enough water for everybody, but it’s being allocated to benefit a few utilities and developers, building golf courses and growing rice in the desert.”
Q: Are our environmental laws too lax? “We have very good environmental laws in this country. If we enforced them, we probably wouldn’t have environmental problems.”
Q: Where did you get the inspiration to become an environmentalist? “My father was an environmentalist, and so was my uncle—President Kennedy. He tried to launch the first Earth Day in 1962, but people wanted to focus on nuclear disarmament and other issues.”
Q: Are tourists “loving” our national parks to death? “Human beings are a part of nature. I spent time in the rain forests of Hawaii, and I have to say I was a little bit bored because there are no people in them. The rain forest I want to be in is the one that has human beings in it, so you can see human beings interacting with nature. I love to camp on an island in the Hudson and see the same blue silhouette of the Catskills that Henry Hudson saw when he came up in theHalf Moonin 1609. I see the boatmen, the water-skiers, the big freighters. And I think, ‘You know, the Hudson is big enough for everybody.’ ”
Q: What can people do? “Get involved in the political process, and get rid of all these rotten politicians who are indentured servants to the big polluters. And I’m talking about Democrats and Republicans alike!”