By Eric Page,, July 25 2000
Marc Reisner, an environmental writer and advocate best known for his book "Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water," died on Friday at his home in San Anselmo, Calif. He was 51.
He had cancer, said Joe Spieler, his literary agent.
Mr. Reisner said in the early 1990's that his politics were "undefinable radical to conservative Democrat with residual radicalism -- especially on environmental issues."
"Cadillac Desert" (Viking Penguin, 1986) was a seminal work about the environmental cost of Western water projects.
The book was applauded by Gladwin Hill, the former national environmental correspondent for The New York Times, in a review in The Times Book Review.
"It's unlikely that most taxpayers will read 'Cadillac Desert,' but they should," Mr. Hill wrote. "It's a revealing, absorbing, often amusing and alarming report on where billions of their dollars have gone -- and where a lot more are going.
"The money has gone into federal water projects in the Western states, -- some of the projects awesome, some scandalous but all with an uncertain future," Mr. Hill added.
Mr. Reisner, a former staff writer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, "has put the story together in trenchant form," Mr. Hill wrote.
"He details the Machiavellian competition," he continued, between the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. Mr. Reisner also "recounts how huge sums have been spent to benefit small numbers of influential people and suggests painful days of reckoning lie ahead," Mr. Hill said.
The book spurred efforts to make reforms in water policy, and it is still highly regarded. In an obituary of Mr. Reisner published yesterday, The San Francisco Chronicle called it "an angry indictment of water depletion in the American West" and "the seminal text on the West's perennial water wars."
Last year "Cadillac Desert" was 61st on a list selected by a panel from the Modern Library, a division of Random House, of the 100 best nonfiction books written in English during the 20th century.
It was a finalist for a National Book Critics' Circle Award and was the basis of an award-winning four-and-a-half-hour documentary film, also called "Cadillac Desert," which was first broadcast on PBS in 1997.
Mr. Reisner's book "Game Wars: The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers" (1991) was written after he followed the activities of Dave Hall, an undercover agent for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, for years and combined the agent's stories with his own reporting.
The book was praised in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, which said: "As in most books about the environment, there is a kind of pall of doom floating over the text, but unlike most such essays, this one has fights, busts -- in short, action. This time the good guys strike back, and if the outcome of the war is in question, a few battles are won here and there. This is a big attraction of the book -- both for the reader and the agents."
Mr. Spieler said the rights to "Game Wars" had been bought by Paramount Pictures, which is interested in adapting the book as a feature film.
Mr. Reisner's other works include "Overtapped Oasis: Reform or Revolution for Western Water" (Island, 1989), which he wrote with Sarah Bates, a lawyer. It is an analysis of water policy in the West with recommendations for change.
At his death, he was at work, as Mr. Spieler put it, "on a book about California and its history of, and inclination toward, natural (and unnatural) disaster." Mr. Spieler said he, Mr. Reisner's wife and Dan Frank, the editorial director at Pantheon, which was to have published the book, would decide whether and how to proceed with the manuscript, much of which Mr. Reisner had already written.
Mr. Reisner contributed many articles to newspapers and other periodicals. He also lectured widely on a variety of environmental subjects in the United States and abroad.
He served as a consultant to the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations in its efforts to secure the removal of what environmental critics saw as outdated and only marginally useful California dams, thereby making additional spawning areas available to salmon.
In 1998 the PBS presentation of "An American Nile," about the Colorado River, won a Silver Baton for the filmmakers, Jon Else, Sandra Itkoff and Mr. Reisner, at the annual Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards.
Mr. Reisner was born in Minneapolis, grew up in several midwestern cities and graduated in 1970 from Earlham College.
He is survived by his wife, the former Lawrie Mott, whom he married in 1985; two daughters, Ruthie and Margot; his parents, Konrad and Else, of Portland, Ore.; and a sister, Jacqui Bostrom, also of Portland.
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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov