Environmentalists’ Complicity in the Submergence of Celilo Falls

Twenty-first century environmentalist views of the destruction of mid-Columbia fishing sites continue to be shaped by the philosophy and politics of mid-twentieth century conservationism. Corps of Engineers plans for The Dalles Dam were made available for public evaluation and comment at a series of public meetings held in Portland between 1945 and 1949. There is no evidence that a single representative of conservation or wildlife advocacy groups attended these meetings or expressed opposition to construction of The Dalles Dam. Opposition to the Corps’ plan came from tribal representatives concerned about traditional fishing sites and the fishery as a whole, and from Euro-American commercial fishers concerned that new dams would devastate Basin-wide salmon runs and harm their economic interests. No non-profit group dedicated to conservationist or wildlife advocacy concerns appears to have expressed formal opposition to The Dalles Dam until the founding of Celilo Falls Education Fund in April, 2011.

In retrospect, the failure of conservationists and wildlife advocates to oppose construction of The Dalles Dam might seem out of character. Celilo Falls was a place of tremendous natural scenic beauty. According to Elizabeth Woody, the Falls were one of the most famous tourist destinations in the Northwest.[i] City dwellers flocked to the Falls to escape the rat race and relieve some of the anxiety induced by city life, as they did to other uniquely beautiful natural places. To nature photographers and those who bought their work, the aesthetic value of the Falls rivaled that of Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.[ii] In this respect, the failure of conservation organizations to actively oppose The Dalles Dam was at odds with their own professed values, even given the relative ecological ignorance of the 1950s.

The scenic value of the Falls, evidently, was not important enough to warrant organized opposition to The Dalles Dam from groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. Understood in light of mid-twentieth century conservationists’ focus on protection of wilderness and wildlife, at a time when “wilderness” and “wildlife” were thought of as things untouched by humankind – in contrast to civilization and culture – the silence of conservation groups was not really out of character. The Falls and other sites on the mid-Columbia were used, occupied, and altered by treaty fishers. Close to the Falls, in every direction, were countless emblems of human settlement and exploitation: villages, towns, farms, ranches, logging operations, barges, boats, cars, highways, billboards, railroads, and bridges. From a mid-twentieth century Euro-American point of view, Celilo Falls and the free-flowing mid-Columbia, though aesthetically beautiful, were a low priority among the myriad other “wild” places that conservationists were committed to preserving. Given that the dominant culture’s understanding of river ecology and the biological needs of salmon were at a primitive stage, it is not surprising that plans to impound the river were also not opposed by fish and wildlife advocates.

Even had The Dalles Dam and other post-1948 Columbia Basin dams been properly recognized as menaces to fish and wildlife, and even had the aesthetic value of the Falls been given a higher priority by 1950s-era conservationists, it is doubtful that conservation and wildlife advocacy groups would have had the time or energy to do anything to alter the Corps’ plans. Between 1950 and 1955, the nation’s leading wildlife advocacy and conservation organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the Izaac Walton League, were focussed on an entirely different struggle.

In the early 1940s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced plans for a series of dams in the upper Colorado River Basin, conceived as part of the Bureau’s Colorado River Storage Project. Two of the proposed dams – Echo Park and Split Mountain – were to be built inside the boundaries of Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah. One of them, Echo Park, would have flooded major sections of both the Green and Yampa River Valleys. These valleys held incomparable aesthetic and recreational value to the burgeoning U.S. conservationist community.

In July, 1950, Bernard DeVoto, writing in the Saturday Evening Post, exposed the Bureau’s plans to a nationwide audience, in his essay, “Shall We Let Them Ruin Our National Parks?.” Although Dinosaur was a national monument, not a park, the area was managed by the Park Service. In the wake of destruction of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park by O’Shaughnessy Dam, three decades earlier, conservationists were determined not to allow further dam construction on Park Service lands. Following an intense, five-year battle, Congress quashed the Bureau’s plans and approved a compromise recommended by Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower. (The compromise – a high dam 250 miles downstream, on the Colorado River – was later described by Mr. Brower as the greatest mistake of his life, because it drowned Glen Canyon, a place whose aesthetic values he belatedly recognized as greater than those in Dinosaur National Monument.)

While conservationists fought to preserve Dinosaur, the Corps of Engineers was hard at work on construction of The Dalles Dam. Ironically, during the Dinosaur controversy, the Corps had agreed with conservationists – albeit on technical rather than aesthetic grounds – that Echo Park and Split Mountain Dams were ill-advised projects. The Corps recognized no technical drawbacks, and no aesthetic ones either, in its plan to transform the mid-Columbia into a series of slackwater pools. Compared with fishing sites used by indigenous fishers for at least twelve thousand years, and compared with the spawning, rearing, and migratory habitats of the mid-Columbia and lower Snake, the presumed utilitarian benefits of a dammed Columbia, and a dammed Snake, were uncritically accepted by every agency of the federal government, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These presumed benefits were also accepted by a vast majority of the non-indigenous public. Some conservationists, and probably nearly everyone who had ever visited the mid-Columbia, were saddened by the impending loss of the Falls, but a sense of inevitability hung in the mist. It was generally assumed that the new dams meant “progress,” and that “progress” could not be stopped.

The Corps and the Bonneville Power Administration endlessly repeated the claim that Northwest residents could have “fish and power too.” The still-primitive science of ecology was poorly equipped to respond. Few fisheries experts understood that building more dams would not only submerge fishing sites but would also destroy upriver salmon stocks. As a result, the public accepted the notion that fish ladders and hatcheries would mitigate most of the effects of the new dams, and that, even if they ended up causing some harm to the fishery, this harm would be outweighed by the dams’ purported utilitarian benefits. The Corps and the BPA claimed they would provide power generation, a shipping channel, irrigation benefits, and flood control. The key evaluative question – whether or not these ostensive benefits would actually outweigh the benefits of abundant salmon runs – was deflected by the not-yet-debunked argument that abundant salmon runs could survive in a thoroughly impounded river.

In hindsight, it seems clear that conservation and wildlife advocacy groups were wrong not to mount vigorous campaigns against construction of The Dalles Dam, and against John Day and the four lower Snake dams. Each of these turned out to be major killers of down-migrating juvenile salmon. Each has dramatically altered the ecology of the Snake and Columbia Rivers for the worse. Each has destroyed the beauty, as well as the ecological integrity and stability, of the mid-Columbia and lower Snake Rivers. Had the ecological and aesthetic consequences of dams been more widely understood in the late 1940s – and had wildlife advocates and conservationists not been distracted by the struggle to preserve Dinosaur – these consequences alone might have stimulated groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society to oppose new Columbia Basin dams.

Within a few years of completion of The Dalles Dam, a more sophisticated understanding of the values of wilderness and wildlife began to gain prominence in conservationist thinking. Aldo Leopold was the first to express the idea that preserving America’s wildlife and wild places is vital to sustaining crucial features of the character and identity of U.S. society. By 1970, the year of the first “Earth Day” celebration, the idea that Americans need forests, prairies, free-flowing rivers, wildlife habitats, etc. – not just for ecological and aesthetic reasons but also for cultural, characterological reasons – had taken root in the U.S. conservation movement (which, by then, was more commonly known as the “environmental movement”). In 1960, Wallace Stegner articulated this idea in his famous “Wilderness Letter.” Stegner wrote, “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed… Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved – as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds – because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed.”

Celilo Falls and the free-flowing mid-Columbia might not have embodied the values that Stegner was defending in his letter. On its face, the “Wilderness Letter” is an effort to articulate the cultural, character-forming benefits, for non-indigenous society, of preserving wild places. As a fishing site, Celilo Falls did not play a role in forming the character of Euro-American culture, in any meaningful sense. To newly arriving immigrants, the Falls were a hazard to overcome as they made their way west. They were character forming to indigenous cultures, but this was not what Stegner was referring to. In a literal sense, moreover, he could not possibly have included Celilo Falls in his plea that wilderness be preserved, “as much of it as is left.” By 1960, the Falls were already submerged.

Stegner’s account of the cultural character-forming values of wilderness gave conservationists a new reason to argue for the benefits of protecting wilderness and wildlife. As Stegner observed, wilderness and wildlife offer more to people than scenic beauties and recreational opportunities. The mere existence of places unmarred by technology and “progress” offers inspiration and solace, even to those who are too old or too frail to visit them in person. “The idea [of wilderness] alone can sustain me,” Stegner writes, “and as the remnants of the unspoiled and natural world are progressively eroded, every such loss is a little death in me. In us.” Viewed in this light, damming the mid-Columbia resulted in more than a loss of scenic beauties and recreational opportunities. At a deeper level, it resulted in the loss of a unique cultural identity, one rooted in the natural cycles of fishermen and fish.

Unlike most of the places that mid-twentieth century conservationists were concerned about preserving – places where, in the language of the Wilderness Act of 1964, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” – Celilo Falls was a place where “the earth and its community of life” intersected with human culture. In the 1950s, the essential feature of the Falls – their unique status as a place where nature and culture vividly intersected – was not generally recognized, and did not appeal to the moral imagination of conservationists. This feature, in fact, was probably one of the reasons why 1950s-era conservation groups did not view the Falls as worth fighting for. Compared with places like Hetch Hetchy and Dinosaur National Monument, they were too “trammeled,” too humanized.

In the hearts and minds of mid-twentieth century conservationists, untrammeled places such as Dinosaur National Monument held a special attraction that trammeled places, such as the mid-Columbia, did not. Wallace Stegner articulated part of the reason for the special importance of wilderness by connecting it to the unique character and identity of American society. In the 1970s, as the conservation movement metamorphosed into the environmental movement, wilderness and wildlife advocates began articulating a still-deeper reason to protect wild places. Relying on the Western dichotomy between nature-as-resource and nature-as-wilderness, environmentalists began arguing that wilderness holds intrinsic value. Nature-as-wilderness, in other words, is valuable independent of its value to humankind.

Some environmentalists have argued that nature-as-wilderness is intrinsically valuable because it and the living communities it harbors are sacred, having been created by powers far greater than ours. This was John Muir’s argument for protecting Hetch Hetchy from O’Shaughnessy Dam: wild places that are especially awe-inspiring, that rouse a sense of reverence in the human heart, should be preserved because they unmistakably express the will of a divine Creator. Other environmentalists, uncomfortable with the religious overtones of an appeal to the sacred, have argued that nature-as-wilderness is intrinsically valuable for reasons disclosed by modern science, by botany, biology, evolutionary history and ecology, in particular.

From botany and biology, we know that nonhuman living organisms defend their lives and pursue aims of their own, aims subsisting independent of human interests; independent, even, of human consciousness. The values associated with these aims are, in this sense, objectively knowable and real, intrinsic to the organisms themselves. From evolutionary history, we know that each species traces a path toward optimal adaptive fit with its environment. Like the autonomous aims of an individual organism, optimal adaptive fit is a value subsisting independent of its interest or usefulness to humans. From ecology, we know that an ecosystem, when not dramatically disturbed by humans or cataclysmic events, maintains its own integrity and stability, even though its species composition is continuously changing. The integrity and stability of an ecosystem, like the autonomous aims of organisms and the adaptive fits of species, are valuable objectively, without reference to the needs or desires of humans.

The environmentalist sets the intrinsic values of organisms, species, ecosystems, and the wilderness that embodies them against the extrinsic values of natural resources. Nature-as-wilderness is defended against nature-as-resource. The intrinsic values of a free-flowing river and its wild fish are defended against the extrinsic values of an engineered river and its hatcheries. From an environmentalist point of view, the case for restoring Celilo Falls is predicated on a series of distinct arguments. Arguments based in the intrinsic values of an integrated, stable, Columbia-Snake River ecosystem are linked with arguments based on the economic values of a restored mid-Columbia fishery. These, in turn, are linked with the aesthetic values of a free-flowing mid-Columbia and the cultural character-forming values of traditional mid-Columbia fishing sites. The foundations of a twenty-first century philosophical defense of the benefits of restoring Celilo Falls are utilitarian, aesthetic, characterological, and, finally, intrinsic to the river itself.

[i]  Elizabeth Woody, “Recalling Celilo Falls,” in Salmon Nation: People, Fish, and Our Common Home, Ecotrust, 2003, p. 11.

[ii]  See, for example, the photos of Wilma Roberts, in her collection Celilo Falls: Remembering Thunder, Wasco County Historical Museum Press, 1997.

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