The Dam and Its Aftermath

Excerpt from "Public Power, Private Dams"



From: Dwight Eisenhower's Partnership with Idaho Power

The postwar West still seemed a New Deal stronghold as the parties plotted their 1952 campaigns. Controlling the White House and Congress for two decades had entrenched the Democrats. In 1948 Harry Truman, like Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, had carried all but one state between the High Plains and Pacific. Even popular California Governor Earl Warren, Thomas Dewey's vice-presidential candidate, had not lured enough Westerners to vote Republican. However, the veneer of Democratic presidential voting overlay a core of conservative popular dissent. Despite presidential reverses, Republicans had elected nine of 10 Western governors after 1946. Dwight Eisenhower, who had probably never voted in an American election, finally discovered how his new party could transform dissenters into majorities. He and the Republicans won the West in 1952 by enflaming popular frustrations with the New Deal, especially federal land and water management. Eisenhower and his campaign advisers recognized accumulated resentment against federal regulation was combustible after 1950.

Republican strategists carefully selected Boise, Idaho, for their candidate's first campaign speech after the July nominating convention. Idaho's ambitious young attorney general, Robert Smylie, persuaded them that politics and geography made Boise an ideal kickoff spot. There, at the center of resistance to Hells Canyon High Dam, Eisenhower would confer with Western governors and address natural resources policy. Idaho's four electoral votes mattered hardly at all. Boise, though, was the biggest city, and only state capital, near Hells Canyon. By spending nearly half his time with the governors, Eisenhower would contrast his respect for local governments with what he claimed was Democrats' "absentee landlord" attitude. By attacking New Deal public-power policy at the outset of the campaign, the candidate would show westerners how the Hells Canyon controversy symbolized his fundamental philosophical differences with Roosevelt and Truman.

Eisenhower and his aides launched their campaign by attacking public-power policy because Republicans sensed an opportunity to recruit disaffected western voters. Hells Canyon High Dam had already enmeshed both political parties in a referendum about the New Deal's postwar legacy. The 1952 elections, coming amid Idaho Power Company's Federal Power Commission licensing case, invited Americans to ratify or reject two decades of federal planning and regulation of the national economy.

The Republican candidate wanted to stop public-power expansion as a way of reducing the government's role in the economy. Beginning in the New Deal and then accelerating under the Fair Deal, hydroelectricity had become a "political football," Eisenhower believed. "Federal power zealots," as he termed them, distrusted local people and pursued national economic centralization under White House direction. Selfish congressional barons, eager to reward their regional supporters, approved costly, unnecessary water projects to gain "a federal monopoly over power." Hells Canyon High Dam would be "a massive Snake River monument to political maneuver and federal pre-emption," an expensive tribute to "a theory which had failed." If elected, Eisenhower vowed to "liberate the Pacific Northwest." If Idaho Power won an FPC license to dam the Snake in Hells Canyon, that would truly be "public power," as Eisenhower redefined it: "regulated power, freely chosen in each instance by the citizens of each area, with the federal government coming in as a cooperating partner where this seems necessary or desirable."

His Boise campaign speech in late August outlined Republicans' new definition of the public interest in rivers. Eisenhower wanted to replace federal control with a "partnership policy" for hydroelectricity. "We have had for a long time in power a government that implies the philosophy of the left." Of course, the Northwest needed more electricity, but "for every problem the party in power has only one solution: further extension of the power of the federal government. To reach every social goal it knows only one means: a new, bigger, and more highly concentrated bureau in Washington." For 20 years, the Democrats' "answer to the problems of this Western area is to make of the West a federal province and make its people economic dependents governed by remote control." If elected, he would work with Republican congressional majorities so "we can have a government that does not grow complacent, that does not grow away from people and become indifferent to them, and does not become arrogant in the exercise of its powers, but strives to be the partner and servant of the people and not their master."

As a campaign slogan, "partnership" packed a punch. Eisenhower and his allies stressed Republicans would consult frequently and sincerely with a range of local interests before deciding how, or whether, to build federal dams and irrigation projects. Since 1932, federal-agency planners had made the crucial decisions about Northwestern water. In Eisenhower's homely imagery, that pattern made the public-power domain an intrusive, domineering know-it-all: "The Government will build power dams. The Government will tell you how to distribute your power. Why, the Government does everything but come in and wash the dishes for the housewife." When he was president, he told the delighted throng in Boise, "We are not going to gear the West to Washington. We will simply gear Washington in its proper sphere to the West--as a partner."

As a principle for changing New Deal public-power policy, partnership proved elastic. Eisenhower and the Republicans agreed Westerners still needed federal money and advice to make water serve the region's people. "Let Washington participate in this great transformation," he assured his Boise audience. The level of federal participation would vary during Eisenhower's presidency, depending on the goals and methods proposed for particular hydropower and irrigation projects. In partnership's elasticity lay the rationale that explains Eisenhower's support for Idaho Power's plans to electrify Hells Canyon, as well as his endorsement, midway through his presidency, of the massive Upper Colorado Project's network of public dams and reclamation subsidies. He found Hells Canyon High Dam would have made Bonneville Power Administration too big a power seller over too much of the country. By contrast, he believed corporate utilities serving the Colorado Plateau could distribute hydroelectricity generated by the Upper Colorado Project. No Bonneville Power Administration threatened to become the Southwest's imperial electric overlord.

Democrats welcomed Eisenhower's Boise attack on public power. If the Republicans wanted Hells Canyon to symbolize the New Deal in the Northwest, then Democrats appreciated the gift. They claimed the politically naive general, captive of the corporate bosses, was desecrating the New Deal Northwest's sacred icon. Democrats campaigned again as the "people's power party," as Truman had done brilliantly in 1948. From the president on down, they tore into Republican hydroelectric policies. One of the most polarizing postwar social and economic problems, power policy renewed Democrats' covenant with their New Deal heritage. Public Utilities Fortnightly correctly predicted, as the traditional Labor Day campaign season neared, Democrats "intend to play the power issue for all it is worth."

The Democratic Party platform pledged "sound, progressive development of the Nation's land and water resources" and praised "the wise policy of the Democratic Party in encouraging multipurpose projects throughout the country." Fair Deal public-power policy aimed to realize Roosevelt's commitment "that the Nation and its people receive maximum benefits from these resources to which they have an inherent right." Those opposing "acceleration of all such projects" sought "to prevent or retard utilization of the Nation's power and water resources for the benefit of the people." "Wider and more equitable distribution of electric energy at the lowest cost to the consumer with continuing preference to public agencies and REA [rural electric] co-operatives ... is responsible for America's productive security over any nation in the world."

President Truman used an October speech dedicating a new power dam at Bull Shoals, Arkansas, to pledge, "No matter what the private power companies say, if I have my way about it, we are going right ahead and develop our resources all over this country." On a campaign swing through the West, he charged that Republicans intended to privatize federal dams and public waters so "the resources of this country will no longer be developed for the people." If Eisenhower carried Republican majorities into Congress, the president warned a Bonners Ferry, Idaho, trackside audience, "Hells Canyon Dam will be out the window." His listeners knew he had battled for the High Dam, and "I'm going to keep right on fighting for it."

Crucial elements of the postwar Democratic Party coalition--especially urban labor unions and liberal farm groups--portrayed public power at a crossroads in the 1952 elections. They insisted Eisenhower the president would replace maximum, planned, federal hydropower expansion with corporate enforced scarcity. James G. Patton, president of the National Farmers Union, charged public-power opponents favored "dictatorship control of the power companies over electricity." United Automobile Workers President Walter Reuther accused power companies of "trying to commit America to the economics of scarcity by trying to erect major road blocks in the achievement of economic abundance."

Reuther's speech to the July 1952 Electric Consumers Conference-- called by labor, farm, and public-power groups to back Truman's public-power campaign--illustrated how Democrats hoped cheap power spelled partisan victory. By identifying the postwar Fair Deal with the New Deal, labor leaders sought to persuade union members their future economic security depended on perpetually exploiting nature. According to Reuther, "The basic concept of public power says that we ought to take our resources and utilize them to the fullest, applying our most advanced technology, so that the people can have the benefits of the highest volume of power at the lowest possible cost. That is the concept of abundance translated into practical achievement." Corporate utilities, by contrast, hoped to profit from scarcity: "Keep the production down as low as possible and the rates up as high as possible," Reuther characterized private utilities' strategy. If "private monopolies" prevailed, Interior secretary Oscar Chapman warned the Electric Consumers Conference, their high power prices would "further accentuate inequality." Just in time for the fall campaign, the conference published The People's Fight for Low Cost Power. Described by Public Power's Alex Radin as "a vital document which deserves the widest possible audience--in and out of the power field," The People's Fight hailed "the important role of Federal power in meeting the nation's power requirements." It blasted "the private power companies' assault on public and cooperative power programs."

New Deal stalwart Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.), campaigning in southwest Idaho, emphasized Democrats' postwar commitment to public-power expansion and federal resources planning. Hells Canyon High Dam, the senator told a campaign rally in Nampa, "would provide new payrolls, open up vast new phosphate deposits to provide low-cost fertilizer, cut power rates, and aid flood control and navigation." Its power revenues, flowing into the Reclamation Bureau's Mountain Home Project, "would leave upstream water sufficient to irrigate more than a million new acres of land and supply supplemental irrigation to a million and a quarter acres." He told his audience of High Dam boosters he "wanted to steer away from politics as much as possible," but then urged listeners to elect Idaho Democratic congressional candidates Gracie J. Pfost and W. H. Jensen to help him authorize High Hells Canyon in 1953. Magnuson ridiculed Idaho Power Comany's Oxbow project. Electrifying Hells Canyon Tom Roach's way meant "little dams with little power ... built by little minds for little private profits." The company had duped Eisenhower and Republicans throughout the West "into their selfish war against government multi-purpose projects such as Hells Canyon."

Duped or not, Eisenhower detested what he believed was the New Deal legacy of costly dams, comprehensive plans, and federal supervision. In Seattle, in October, he delivered what aides billed as the Republican's second major address about water and power. Eight thousand packed the Civic Ice Arena. Another 5,000, unable to secure seats, flocked to Memorial Stadium across the street to listen on loudspeakers. For 20 years, Eisenhower contended, Democrats have subscribed to the "idea of wholehog federal government." By planning mammoth new federal dams, Truman's Interior Department "is seeking a monopoly not just in the West but throughout the nation." Of course, "water and power are the lifeblood of the great northwest." But "the sly apostles of Fair Dealism" are "far more interested in empire-building than in the conclusions and convictions of responsible offcials of the regions where all these facilities should be owned and operated."

Eisenhower's Seattle address did not mention the Columbia Basin Interagency Committee [the federal coalition backing the Hell's Canyon High Dam project] or Bonneville Power Administration by name. But he plainly signaled Republicans' intent to leaven CBIAC's and Bonneville Power Administration's federal plans with a larger measure of local opinion. "The hard-core difference between those power-seeking politicians and the rest of us who still believe in basic American institutions" lies in "the whole-hog theory that the federal government must do everything for us and to us." If elected, he vowed to replace CBIAC with "a new interstate body, its members chosen in accordance with state law, [who] should have full equality with the federal members who sit in to advise and assist."

Across the Snake, the Idaho Daily Statesman welcomed the Republicans' initiative. Eisenhower understood "natural resource development is an important part of the Republican program." His plan "for development by the states, with federal assistance, rather than federal domination, is encouraging." "President Truman has led the pack of socialist wolves who have deliberately misrepresented the natural resource problem at every opportunity." A Republican victory in November "will lead to a housecleaning in the Interior Department which will put an end to socialism in natural resources, and return development to the states."

One week before the election, northwestern New Deal loyalists reaffirmed that hydroelectric expansion and federal planning symbolized Democrats' partisan goals. Meeting in Nampa, the Idaho-Oregon Hells Canyon Association endorsed only Democrats in key races across the region. The association had coordinated testimony on behalf of the High Dam at the July FPC hearings. Its leaders--Baker Realtor Albert C. Ullman, Mountain Home mayor John Glasby, and Vale judge Sewell Stanton--had all testified against Idaho Power. The association closed its election rally by endorsing "immediate authorization and construction" of the High Dam and opposing Idaho Power's Oxbow project.

High Dam opponents also pinned their own hopes on the voters' will. Idaho Governor Len B. Jordan told Idaho Power's outside counsel R. P. Parry, one week before Election Day, he "expected to win." But if "the Democrats should win on November 4, however, I think they will not waste any time in getting underway with their program" to federalize Hells Canyon hydropower. Jordan asked Parry to recommend "delaying tactics" he could use at an early November CBIAC meeting, called by the Reclamation Bureau to obtain governors' endorsement of a comprehensive Northwest water plan.

Voters went to the polls in record numbers in 1952. Eighty percent of Idaho adults cast ballots for president. Eisenhower matched Roosevelt's 1936 record victory margin in Idaho, taking 67 percent of the vote. Oregonians also backed the general. Eastern Oregon's Republican congressman, Sam Coon, won handily after campaigning vigorously against the High Dam. However, energetic union get-out-the-vote efforts in Idaho's congressional district embracing Hells Canyon pushed Democrat Gracie Pfost past one-term Republican John Wood by fewer than 1,000 votes. Upstream, in the heart of the Snake Basin's irrigation society, incumbent Hamer Budge defeated his Democratic opponent by better than 2:1.

Pfost interpreted her narrow win as a High Dam mandate. "I will do whatever I can to get approval of Hells Canyon Dam," she promised the day after the election. So fiercely did Pfost pursue her chief campaign theme that she soon earned the sobriquet "Hell's Belle," a backhanded compliment she cheerfully accepted. If she could secure the giant federal dam, "Idaho and her citizens may benefit to the utmost in the development of hydroelectric power, water transportation, and prevention of soil erosion and floods."

Hell's Belle would find good intentions in short supply on her road to Washington. Sweeping Republican victories in 1952 changed everything about the Hells Canyon controversy. Dwight Eisenhower knew it, as did Governors Jordan of Idaho and McKay of Oregon. So did Idaho Power president Tom Roach and general counsel Arthur Inman. Gone--or going--would be Truman, Interior secretary Oscar Chapman, Reclamation commissioner Michael Straus, public-power sparkplug C. Girard Davidson, and Bonneville Power Administration administrator Paul Raver. Gone--or going--would be FPC chairman Thomas Buchanan. An unconfirmed Truman appointee, Buchanan had resisted processing Idaho Power's Oxbow license application. He and his presidential patron agreed to act only after concluding that election-year FPC held hearings would be public-power pep rallies in the Northwest. Gone--or going--would be CBIAC's primacy in deciding the Snake Basin's fate.

From: The Aftermath of the Canyon Controversy

Idaho Power Company's victory in the Hells Canyon controversy changed the Snake River and its watershed forever. Its three-dam complex ultimately eliminated salmon and steelhead trout races that had inhabited the Snake Basin above Hells Canyon for 10 millennia. Its hydroelectricity encouraged both more intensive urban settlement and extensive irrigated agriculture. However, corporate victory and federal defeat preserved natural features of the basin and left Snake Basin politics mostly unchanged. Things forever changed, coupled with those that endured, make the Hells Canyon controversy worth understanding. Antagonists on one of the first "modern" environmental battlegrounds contested old issues rooted in the New Deal's transformation of the Pacific Northwest. But the outcome of their fierce decade-long struggle shaped future controversies over power, water, fish and land.

Private power's victory at Hells Canyon unplugged the postwar New Deal in the Northwest before it annexed the Snake Basin. Unable to turn the Snake's hydropower to the cause of industrialization and widespread desert reclamation, federal planners in the Bureau of Reclamation and BPA left the Snake Basin almost as they had found it at the dawn of the postwar. High Hells Canyon's defeat preserved Snake Basin irrigators' distinctive relationship to the water they controlled.

What did not happen at Hells Canyon is at least as important to the contemporary environmental history of the Northern Rockies as what did. Mountain rivers--the Boise and Payette--stayed in their canyons instead of being forced through turbines into tunnels under granite peaks and onto rolling deserts. More than 1 million acres of sagebrush plain remained arid but biologically diverse. The United States' largest wild-river system, the Salmon, remained free flowing. Its waters, instead of pooling behind a concrete necklace of federal dams, continued to nurse the world's richest anadromous fishery. Phosphate beds, piled against the Continental Divide at the head of the Snake Basin, did not vanish abruptly into the maw of an industrial complex tied umbilically into a federal hydropower grid. They steadily, but slowly, disappeared into two small fertilizer plants.

Had the Federal Columbia River Power System won the Hells Canyon controversy, the Bonneville Power Administration would have mastered Snake Basin hydropower, as it had the Columbia Basin's energy grid during the Depression and Second World War. Under BPA dominion, the Snake Basin--southern Idaho, eastern Oregon, and northern Utah and Nevada--would likely have urbanized more thoroughly and quickly during the postwar period. More Snake Basin people would have worked in more factories and offices. Downriver political influences from the Columbia Basin would probably have nudged Snake Basin life after 1957 in directions being pioneered by Oregonians and Washingtonians. The irrigators who dominated Snake Basin life would have had to share power sooner with industrialists, labor unions, and urban salaried workers. Indeed, victory in Hells Canyon for Idaho Power ensured two more generations of political and cultural primacy for Snake Basin agricultural leaders.

The Hells Canyon controversy deserves understanding because the long postwar debate over its fate reflected both Northwesterners and the larger American nation struggling to craft a new balance between private capital, public authority, and natural features. The chief combatants--engineers and planners, industrialists and irrigators, biologists and fishers, politicians and publicists--tried to make and use law to serve their competing claims to reshape a natural system in the public interest. They advanced their competing visions in a multitude of places where American law is made. People seeking legal advantages in each of those places exerted some influence over the course of the Snake through Hells Canyon. However, taken together, acting and reacting constantly on one another, northwestern people and the region's natural features and forces made history in Hells Canyon. The Snake River Basin's natural system of rivers and canyons, basalt plains, and silvery fish persistently bent human interests into new forms that reflected nature's own imperatives.

The Hells Canyon controversy divides the history of the modern Northwest. Roughly at the midpoint of the 20th century, Northwesterners appraised dams more critically. They grasped more clearly cheap hydroelectricity's ecological consequences. They helped lead all Americans to begin exploring different ways of living along all of the waters that bind places on earth together. They displayed a new willingness to ask less from rivers, to let them do more of the work they had been doing before people dammed them to make electricity and diverted them to irrigate fields. Idaho Power Company's campaign for a federal license illustrated how customary legal tools--administrative agencies and courts--could yield unexpected legal consequences when social values were rapidly changing. The Hells Canyon controversy led directly, a decade later, to the Supreme Court's Udall decision that declared a new legal definition of "the public interest."

Changing popular hopes and beliefs, fears and frustrations, during the decade or so following World War II revised the meaning of legal rules that resolved the Hells Canyon controversy. Social and environmental changes stimulated legal change. They still do. In Idaho and Oregon, and in the nation as a whole, Americans have still not rendered a final decision about the respective legal preferences due environment and capital. With luck and skill, we never will.


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