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Echoes from Hells

reviewHistory usually does not repeat itself, exactly, but it does send waves of recollection off into the future. We have a hard time learning from history, it seems, until after it smacks us more than once.

Brooks bookUseful history books can at least soften the shock, and Karl Brooks’ new (and first) book on the Hells Canyon controversy may do that, since its timeliness has worked out well. One of the underreported developments in Idaho and Oregon now underway is the renewal of Idaho Power Company’s licenses for the Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon Dams on the Snake River; the almost certain ultimate approval of those renewals does not lessen their importance (or render insignificant the terms attached). The lack of current controversy would seem to tell many Idahoans and Oregonians that the dams on the Snake involve no dispute.

But they once did, ferocious dispute indeed, and not where you might think. The battle running from the late 40s to the late 50s centered not on the environmental question that might be a centerpiece today – whether to build a dam (or more than one) on such a fine stream of freeflowing river. The issue then was over whether the federal government or Idaho Power, both experienced dam builders, should do the job – and win control of a key piece of electric generation in the Northwest.

Our Paradox Politics touched on the subject briefly, from the standpoint of Idaho politics. But now Karl Brooks has given it the full book treatment, and this thorough review turns out to be unexpectedly timely.

Karl BrooksBrooks was a state senator from Boise, a Democrat, from 1986-92, and a lawyer by profession. He was capable enough at both (as a senator, he was one of those Democrats most highly regarded by Republicans without much compromising philosophically), but the role of hard-nosed advocate or sharp-elbowed partisan never much suited him. He later quit legal work and politics to take a job with the Idaho Conservation League and later still, and currently, a professorship at the University of Kansas.

Public Power, Private Dams (University of Washington Press, Seattle) is Brooks’ review of how history got wrenched around at a critical moment. He may draw issues from some historians for wandering near the counterfactual – the speculation of what might have happened if – but the question at the heart of the book is simply a good reporters’ question: Why didn’t the federal government build the big single dam at Hells Canyon that its planners had for some years intended?

As of the late 40s, the federal goverment – mainly the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers – were the big guys on the western dam-building scene. They had just got through constructing the mass of enormous dams on the Columbia River (among others), and were ready to taken on what might have been the biggest dam of all – a single big dam in Hells Canyon.

On the other size was a small regional utility, Idaho Power Company. Idaho Power was busy dam builder too, mainly on the Snake River in southern Idaho, where it constructed a long list of dams – much smaller dams than the federal monsters. It wanted to build on Hells Canyon too, but a smaller structure (later expanded to three).

The most immediate and easiest answer to why Idaho Power eventually, in the mid-50s, prevailed, is politics and political philosophy. When the federal plan first gathered steam, in the late 40s, Democrats under Harry Truman were still in power in Washington. From that time Republicans gained strength, especially after the congressional elections of 1950 and the presidential of 1952, and brought with them much more sympathy to private enterprise and less toward big public projects (except, in Dwight Eisenhower’s case, highways). By the time final decisions happened in the late 50s, Idaho Power’s timing was very good.

That’s a reasonable short version, but it doesn’t satisfy entirely, and Public Power demonstrate why it shouldn’t.

Brooks’ narrative gives visibility to the full range of interests and issues playing a role in the dispute, from fish to power rates and distribution and much more – including fundamental changes in the way a lot of people looked at such things as government services, private interests and the role of electric power. (One of the obscure but notable points Books raises is how a growing awareness of environmental considerations and the needs of fish runs drastically undercut the New Deal goal of building big new public projects – one liberal impulse hacking the ground out from under another; the point has resonance today.) It’s a complex story, not a simple one. Brooks tells it cleanly and well.

And it may even send a few more people to the public files to look up those Idaho Power relicensure papers . . .

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