Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Remember the Snail Darter!

Longtime East Tennessee residents probably remember the controversial Tellico Dam, built by the TVA during the 1970s as a means of bringing economic development to Loudon County and the Tennessee Valley. This was the first--and only--TVA dam built for this reason; those previously constructed were for flood control.

The Tellico Dam is probably best remembered today, and least outside the Tennessee Valley, as being nearly torpedoed by the infamous snail darter, a small fish whose habitat was said to be threatened by construction. The snail darter would delay construction for several years, and became a symbol of dogmatic environmentalists standing in the way of progress.

Small fish weren't the only obstacles to construction, however. Native Americans argued that the land flooded held religious significance, and environmental groups questioned the ethics of radically changing the Little Tennessee River, especially for the sole purpose of possible economic development. They too fought the good fight, but only succeeded in delaying the inevitable. The Native Americans fought the White man and lost, a recurrent theme of American history.

Then there were the property owners themselves, whose land was slated to be flooded. Since politicians rarely ever care much about the little guys who get in the way of their master plans, these people were kindly informed they would have to leave, and generously offered money for their troubles. This was done under the guise of eminent domain, and surely would have made supporters of the Kelo vs. New London decision proud.

Some of the property owners sold willingly; others held out to the bitter end. The most famous holdout was Nellie McCall, an elderly woman who had lived in the area her whole life, and who became a powerful symbol for the holdouts. She refused to sell out and refused to budge, but was eventually evicted by federal marshals.

Though the critics lost that battle, they may have eventually won the war: prior to the controversy, few questioned the construction of new dams, seeing them as progress, a sign of technological advancement and an enlightened society. Those who stood up to the TVA helped change this perception (it's hard to win a PR battle while forcibly removing poor, elderly women from their homes), and no TVA dams have been built in the three decades since.

WBIR notes that it was been 30 years since the Tellico Dam opened its gates on the Little Tennessee River, and features some remarks from a man who initially opposed its construction and lost some property as a result, but has since come around to accept the dam as an advantage for the region. Perhaps he's right, but I'm not so sure.

Cross-posted at Appalachian Abroad


Going Crunchy said...

One of my best vacations was camping in Tellico, and swimming underneath the mighty pretty waterfalls. Great rock hopping, and beautiful drives 'round there.

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Gary Carden said...

I was working for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians during the snail darter controversy. It was a disillusioning experience. Since the opposition to the Tellico Dam was focused on organizations like the Sierra Club, Trouts Unlimited and the Tennessee Historical Association, the Cherokees were invited to participate in the planning. I remember a meeting at Fort Laudon and another at Tellico Plains. Each morning, Paul Harvey held forth on the radio urging everyone who supported the snail darter to shut up because "we need that power." I watched the Department of Archeology dug up Cherokee graves determined to get as many relics as possible before TVA closed the gates. I need to hush, I guess. I think it is a shame that you have been invaded by a group of counter productive fools who get a kick out of posting in sites like this.

Ann + Zyg said...

Don't know if this will reach anyone, but the snail darter rises again, with the book just published by Yale University Press: The Snail Darter & the Dam: How Pork-Barrel Politics Endangered a Little Fish and Killed a River.

It lays out the entire crazy crusade where a bunch of local citizens try to carry the facts of a fundamentally crooked project to the highest levels of national government before they are doublecrossed by Howard baker & Jimmy Carter.

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