A fifty-year anniversary by the unlikely victors who saved Hells Canyon
written by Lee Lewis Husk
In the late 1960s, a small band of passionate, committed conservationists battled to save Hells Canyon from additional dams on the Snake River. The odds were daunting, often described as David versus Goliath. They faced stiff opposition from forces never before challenged— public and private hydroelectric power companies of Oregon, Idaho and Washington, big agriculture and much of the political power structure at the time, including U.S. senators and presidents.
The battle raged in court and in Congress from 1967 until 1975, ending when President Gerald Ford signed legislation introduced by Senator Bob Packwood, R-Oregon, making the Snake River below the Hells Canyon Dam a Wild and Scenic River and creating the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. By the time the conservationists had their victory, they’d given hope and the fighting spirit to other groups lobbying Congress for the Clean Air and the National Environmental Protections Acts passed in the 1970s.
They’d also won important allies among diverse groups of people who loved the canyon and its wild river. Out of the struggle grew the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, founded in 1967 and recently renamed the Greater Hells Canyon Council to reflect its expanding mission. Its support was critical to the effort and for fifty-plus years has carried the banner to protect North America’s deepest gorge and its surrounding ecosystems. Lessons learned from the Hells Canyon campaign are relevant today as conservationists face off against the Trump Administration’s denial of climate change, efforts to turn public lands over to industry for profit and to reduce the size of public lands within our national monuments, including the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southwestern Oregon and northwestern California.
Our work today is built on conservation efforts from the past fifty years. The fact that our mission area remains largely wild is not just due to chance.
—Darilyn Parry Brown, executive director of the Greater Hells Canyon Council
Though countless individuals contributed to the victory, two young attorneys stand out for their temerity and passion. Brock Evans, then 29 years old, was a new Sierra Club staff attorney tasked to “do something to save Hells Canyon from pending dams,” he recalled. There was no legal precedent for fighting dam building and at stake were the last 120 miles of the Hells Canyon inner gorge, which draws the border between northeast Oregon and Idaho. A consortium of public power utilities was appealing before the Supreme Court a decision by the Federal Power Commission to give the dam-building license to private companies. “ The license had already been granted, and the only issue before the Supreme Court was about who got to do the terrible deed,” Evans said.
But in a turn of fate, Justice William Douglas persuaded his fellow justices that the issue wasn’t who should build the dam but whether there should be a dam at all. Evans said Douglas’s opinion was a landmark in American environmental history. “As for me and our tiny band who wanted to save the canyon, it represented hope and a fighting chance—if we could seize it,” Evans wrote in a collection of papers about the case. He requested and was granted permission to present the Sierra Club and Idaho Alpine Club’s side in hearings before the Federal Power Commission. Evans described the preliminary hearing before an FPC trial judge at the Portland Federal Courthouse on Sept. 27, 1967 this way: “ Thirty attorneys gathered in the ancient dark-oak-paneled courtroom. Twenty-eight favored the dam. My friend, Tom Brucker, an experienced trial attorney, and I listened as each party made its opening statement.
Lawyer after lawyer delivered the most compelling speeches about why there simply had to be this one last dam. Just before noon, the judge finally got to me. He leaned over the bench and said harshly, ‘Mr. Evans, does the Sierra Club really have anything else to add to these proceedings?’ “‘Well, yes, your honor, if it please the court,’ I stammered. ‘ The Sierra Club believes that the highest and best use of the Snake River in Hells Canyon is in its free-flowing, natural state, and we intend to put on a case that will demonstrate this fact. There are other ways to provide electric power to the Northwest, but there is no way to replace what will be lost if the dam is built.’”
The first volley in court had been red. As the FPC hearings proceeded, Evans and the Hells Canyon Preservation Council simultaneously began to court D.C. politicians and bring the plight of the last free-flowing section of the Snake River to the public’s attention. In 1969, Evans traveled to Washington, D.C., to enlist the help of the new Nixon Administration. The White House sent him over to meet with Rus Train, the undersecretary of the Department of the Interior. “We had a wonderful talk, and the administration changed its position and came out against the dam,” Evans said. He also met with freshman senator Packwood. “Brock came to see me in 1969 about Hells Canyon,” Packwood recalled. “As a newly elected senator, I was ninty-ninth in seniority and not on the relevant (interior) committee.
I had utterly no power, and no one in Congress would undertake or sponsor a bill. I was their only choice.” Packwood began rallying support for his bill to create a Hells Canyon Recreation Area in 1971, and the FPC in 1972 granted a dam license to the now- unified public and private power consortium but postponed the effective date of the license until late 1975. Both sides believed it would give them time to press their case in Congress. Meanwhile, public support to preserve the wild nature of the canyon gained momentum. Evans and the Preservation Council engaged in intense lobbying, taking on the titans of Washington. In a stroke of political acumen, Packwood convinced conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona, former presidential candidate, to favor his bill, which led to a diverse group of senators as cosponsors.
“We provided the Interior Committee chairman the names of twenty-five sponsors, evenly split between Ds and Rs,” Packwood said. “On that day, when they knew we had the votes and within two weeks, they scheduled hearings in D.C., Lewiston and La Grande. Everyone knew the battle was over.” Yet it was another four years before President Ford signed the bill on Dec. 31, 1975, which declared the Snake River a Wild and Scenic River, the dam deauthorized and wilderness areas created in Seven Devils and Inner Canyon, Imnaha River and other tributaries included in the 700,000-acre recreation area.
The La Grande-based Greater Hells Canyon Council, or GHCC, continues its work to connect, protect and restore wild lands, waters, native species and habitats of the greater Hells Canyon region using such tools as collaboration with public and private groups, education, litigation and grassroots pressure. As it celebrates fifty-plus years on the frontline of public advocacy, it renamed itself to reflect an expanded mission in the region beyond Hells Canyon. The 4 million acres currently within its advocacy include mountains, valleys and river canyons—Hells Canyon, the Snake River, plus the Seven Devils, Elkhorn, Wallowa and Blue mountains. is work is funded by individual members, businesses and private organizations, such as Patagonia, Meyer Memorial Trust, Mazamas, Wilburforce, Wildhorse Foundation and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. “
The Hells Canyon is the type of place that inspires people to take action, even those who might not otherwise go out and work to protect the environment,” said Greg Dyson of WildEarth Guardians in Santa Fe. An attorney, he previously worked at the GHCC for seven years, including five as its executive director. The WildEarth Guardians have teamed up with GHCC to facilitate wildlife connectivity in the greater Hells Canyon area. “We spend a lot of time in court ensuring that the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, aren’t undermined by Congress,” Dyson said. “We bring in larger expertise, but GHCC brings important expertise on the ground and in local relationships.” “Both organizations are dealing with the current president who is dead set to hand over our public lands to industry—coal mining, extractive industries—for personal gain rather than keeping it the benefit for all of us,” he said. One of the council’s newest pushes is the Wild Connections Campaign. Kirsten Johnson, development director, said GHCC is working with scientists to help identify important species and wildlife corridors to protect within its mission area.
It’s not just about the iconic species, such as moose, wolves, pronghorn, grouse, salmon and steelhead. “Species that often y under the radar, such as amphibians and insects, are important parts of their ecosystems and worthy of protection. We’re still learning about incredibly rare plant species, even some newly discovered plants in the Blue Mountains,” she said. “ The greater Hells Canyon area is a national treasure that deserves to be protected,” said Darilyn Parry Brown, executive director of the council. “People live here because there’s a quality of life, and those who come to recreate do so because it’s such a spectacular area. Our work today is built on conservation efforts from the past fifty years. The fact that our mission area remains largely wild is not just due to chance.” Looking back over the past half century, early GHCC member Evans said he lives by the mantra of endless pressure endlessly applied is what wins. “Never give up, never quit. Hells Canyon exemplified that,” he said. “If we quit, we live through fear.”