Hells Canyon

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There had always been a certain amount of opposition, on the part of fisheries people, to dams in Hells Canyon. Up to this point, such opposition had usually taken a practical turn, supporting Mountain Sheep—just above the mouth of the extraordinarily productive Salmon River—as a means of preventing the building of Nez Perce, which, by blocking the Salmon, threatened to eliminate the highly valuable Snake River fishery altogether. Now, however, with the grim examples of the Oxbow and Brownlee failures to point to, the fisheries interests were emboldened to go a step further.

They announced that they would intervene formally in the Federal Power Commission proceedings in opposition to both Nez Perce and Mountain Sheep.

The complicated, convoluted, and extremely exhausting FPC hearings dragged on until February, 1964. In that month the Pacific Northwest Power Company was given its license for Mountain Sheep. The Washington Public Power Supply System immediately announced that it would appeal. The appeal went all the way to the Supreme Court, and what happened there startled everyone (except, perhaps, the Court itself). In its June 5, 1967, opinion, written by Justice William O. Douglas, the Court found for neither the Supply System nor the Pacific Northwest Power Company. Instead, it remanded the proceedings to the Federal Power Commission for further hearings, with specific instructions to give more weight to the alternative proposed by the fisheries interests—the alternative of no dam at all. The question, Douglas wrote, is not “solely whether the region will be able to use the electric power.”

The test is whether the project will be in the public interest. And that determination can be made only after an exploration of all issues relevant to the “public interest,” including future power demand and supply, alternate sources of power, the public interest in preserving reaches of rivers and wilderness areas, the preservation of anadromous fish for commercial and recreational purposes, and the protection of wildlife.

The commission, the power companies, and even the public watching the debate had forgotten that what was at stake was more than just public power v. private power, or fish v. dams. What was at stake was the battleground itself, an extraordinary wilderness canyon, the deepest gorge on earth. The commission had tossed this little irrelevancy aside. The Court, in one powerful paragraph, had brought it back.

At a congressional hearing on the canyon some time later, a lawyer for Pacific Northwest Power was heard to remark somewhat petulantly ofthat Supreme Court decision that “Until that moment, nobody had ever discerned in the canyon of the Snake River any form of that remarkable beauty which would prevent the development of this very important energy resource.” This is not quite true. As early as the 1920’s, efforts had been made to have Hells Canyon included in the National Park system, and since 1960 there had been a small but vocal preservationist movement in the Lewiston area, headed by a jet-boat operator named Floyd Harvey. The Supreme Court did not invent the idea of preservation for the great gorge. It may be said, however, that it breathed a considerable amount of life into what was until then a virtually moribund cause. Within a few weeks of the Court’s decision, the powerful Sierra Club announced that it planned to intervene in the proceedings on behalf of preservation; within a few months a Hells Canyon Preservation Council had been formed and had begun to put together the first draft of a bill to preserve the canyon. A year later a young Portland attorney named Bob Packwood was elected to the United States Senate from Oregon, and the cause of preservation had a champion in Congress. Packwood enthusiastically introduced the Preservation Council’s bill, which was denied committee hearings, died with the close of the Ninety-first Congress, was revived at the beginning of the Ninety-second, squeaked through to hearings, and finally died altogether. A new bill, written by Hells Canyon Preservation Council President Pete Henault on his dining-room table in Idaho Falls, Idaho, was introduced under the combined sponsorship of the entire Oregon and Idaho senatorial delegations. Al Ullman, who had been elected to Congress in 1956 on his record as head of the pro-dam National Hells Canyon Association—but who could read the handwriting in the public-opinion polls—introduced companion legislation in the House. The Senate bill passed. The House bill was bottled up in committee, died, was reintroduced. Finally, on November 18, 1975, the House, by a 342-53 vote, passed Al Ullman’s preservation bill. The few differences between that bill and the Senate-passed version were easily reconciled; and on December 31, a few brief hours before the opening of the Bicentennial Year, President Gerald R. Ford signed the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area into law. The era of exploitation was over.