Idaho Environmental Forum #151
The Struggle for the Snake: The Hells Canyon Dam Controversy and What it Means Today
Karl Brooks, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies, University of Kansas
Over sixty years ago, a pitched battle erupted over the future of the Snake River flowing through the wilds of Hells Canyon. Powerful regional and national interests – from presidents to professors – drew battle-lines through Idaho and Oregon. The “Hells Canyon Controversy” mobilized coalitions in the Truman-Eisenhower Era that remind us how much the Northwest has changed in a half-century. Public power advocates envisioned a huge federal dam generating electricity for the Pacific Northwest and opening new high desert tracts to irrigation. The Idaho Power Company and its allies countered with a series of three smaller private dams to supply low cost power to the company’s customers.
On the occasion of Boise hosting the annual conference of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH), former Boise lawyer and legislator Karl Brooks talks about Hells Canyon, environmental history, and their relevance to environmental law and policy today. Brooks is the author of Public Power, Private Dams: The Hells Canyon Dam Controversy (University of Washington Press 2006). He contends that, by thwarting a federal high dam, Snake Basin power and irrigation interests retained control not only of water but also of economic and political power in Idaho, putting the state on a postwar path that diverged markedly from that of bordering states. Brooks will highlight how the events that took place decades ago continue to reverberate in today’s conflicts over water rights and salmon recovery.