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Know the West

'Dams made the modern Northwest'


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Keith Petersen is a historian and the author of River of Life, Channel of Death: Fish and Dams on the Lower Snake. He is currently Idaho's statewide coordinator for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.

"I grew up in western Washington. My dad worked on the Bonneville Dam; then he worked 40 years for Alcoa (the aluminium company), which totally depends on the cheap electricity from the dams.

"Growing up, we thought dams were amazing things. Whenever we traveled, we went out of our way to visit them, and we always felt good about it.

"The salmon were icons, too, and I grew up fishing for them and listening to my dad tell stories about pitchforking salmon runs on a little creek.

"My parents are more open-minded now. They can kind of see the case for breaching, but I don't think anyone from their generation is very sympathetic to breaching. They lived through the Depression and they've seen all that the dams have brought. Environmentalists seldom acknowledge it, but there would be no Microsoft, Boeing or Alcoa without the cheap hydropower. Dams made the modern Northwest.

"For my book, I rode down the Snake River on an Army Corps of Engineers fish barge from Lewiston. I found out that the people involved with fish barging really feel good about what they are doing. They are not evil people, but the Corps has put all of its eggs in this basket and it's hard to go back.

"Where I'm unsympathetic with the Corps is how they disguised how dams hurt migrating juvenile salmon. They knew about it in the 1940s, yet they kept telling Congress that we could have dams and fish, too."