Features

Meet the Dam Author

by

comment

BW: As a former Boisean and state senator, you surely have an image of what Boise would have been like had this dam been built. What is that image?

Karl Boyd Brooks In the writing that I did, I needed to tell the story that made a difference to readers all over the West right now, not just a handful of people who are interested in Idaho History of the 1950s. So I tried to answer a question that had always interested me as a politician, and had always interested me as an Idahoan, which is: Why is Idaho such a different place than Oregon and Washington? Even with all of the growth and sophistication of Boise over the last 10 years, why is it still such a different place culturally and politically than Portland and Seattle/Tacoma? They share the same rivers, they think of themselves as Northwesterners, they have a lot of similar historic experiences.

However, I think that if the High Dam had been built, Boise and southern Idaho probably would have begun resembling the Columbia basin more. I think that huge amount of cheap hydroelectric power probably would have kicked Boise's economic growth into a much higher rate much earlier. So that really slow period in the '50s through the late '60s, Boise would have really taken off. I think there would have been much more industry, there definitely would have been a better chance for political viewpoints other than conservative, agricultural, Republican viewpoints to emerge. It would have been more like Oregon and Washington, where you have really close two-party ballots and lots of different views, left, right and center. Obviously, it's hard to tell. Historians are not fortunetellers.

When did you first learn of the Hells Canyon High dam?

I knew that there were other dams in Hells Canyon, and I had actually seen the dams, and I'm sure that I had heard some older people mention about, "Oh, there'd been a big fight over dams," but I never really understood anything about the really big fight over the really big dam until starting about the early '90s. The more I started digging into it, the more I started noticing how interesting it was.

And yet, when I Google "Hells Canyon High Dam," almost all the sites are references to your book.

I'm not the first person to write about dams, and the river, and the canyon. But nobody really had tried to put the big fight over the High Dam into some historic context. People had usually written about the later stages, after environmental politics and environmental law were fully on the scene in the '60s and '70s. But there hadn't really been much effort to understand that really critical area from the 40s through the 60s. I think another reason why the Hells' Canyon fight gets forgotten is that about the same time, there was a really big struggle over a place called Echo Park, or Echo Canyon, and Dinosaur National Monument right there at the Utah/Colorado border.

In your book, you seem to say that the legal legacy of this fight is as significant as Echo Park.

Absolutely. I really think it is, because one thing, the government didn't very often after Echo Park try to put dams in national parks. That was kind of a unique deal. That was the one that really got kind of the environmental issues about wild rivers and national parks in the national consciousness. Hells Canyon was much more a fight about government power, about what was going to happen to the New Deal, and about local versus national. And it got a little bit overshadowed among historians, I think because historians had been so interested in looking at classic fights between preservationists and developers. Hell's Canyon was different than that.

As you dug into this project, what were some of the things that surprised you?

It stuck out to me just how big, and how national, Hell's Canyon was. I had never really understood that people, labor union people in New York City, conservative business writers in L.A., farm lobbyists in the South, all these people knew in the '40s and '50s what Hells Canyon was, and it meant a lot to them. I had never understood that. To me, it was always just an Idaho thing.

Also, how much political capital two successive presidents tried--in Truman's case, to get it built, and in Eisenhower's case, to stop the High Dam from being built. They both wrote about it in their memoirs, Eisenhower decided to open his first run for the presidency in the summer of '52 in Boise, and talk about Hells Canyon and federal natural resources policy, because he and his advisors knew that had a chance of turning politics over in the West, and that the West was crucial to republicans. So, here you have a guy who wins a really big election victory, who makes it, in a sense, the first issue he ever talks about.

You mention in the book that Idaho Power's license to build these dams is set to expire. What can we expect as they go through the lengthy relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commision?

I would say that the Federal Regulatory Commission has quite a bit of leeway in issuing a new license to Idaho Power, and Idaho Power has a lot of leeway in deciding how it wants to handle that asset that is the Hell's Canyon complex. It's obviously the company's most valuable asset, and it makes them a really attractive acquisition or merger target or partner. I'm sure the people who run the company wonder all the time, "Is this the sort of thing we should hang onto as an independent company, or should we get out there and flash our jewels and see if anyone wants to buy us out?"

On the regulatory side, FERC has a huge amount of authority in telling Idaho Power how to run that complex. It's a public license that the company has, and the law gives the FRC a lot of authority in telling the company, look, you need to care a lot more about irrigators; you need to care more about fish; you need to care more about tribal issues; you need to care more about your downstream neighbors. It can't simply repeal the license or order Idaho Power to blow the dams up, but it has plenty of power. Hells Canyon is one of the biggest private dam complexes in the world, and that that's going to ricochet through people's pocketbooks, it's going to affect ecosystems and it's going to affect politics all over the state.

--Nicholas Collias

Add a comment

Note: Comments are limited to 200 words.