Book Review: The Snail Darter and the Dam (Zygmunt Plater 2013)

Rating: 5/5

In  The Snail Darter and the Dam, Zygmunt Plater describes his famous legal battle over Tennessee’s Tellico Dam, which he argued all the way to a 6-3 US Supreme Court victory in 1978. Plater and local activists  argued that the dam would threaten the endangered snail darter fish, a violation of the recently-passed Endangered Species Act. The media covered it as a case of environmentalism run amok, but the ESA appeal was a backdoor to stopping an unsound project. Despite the court victory, a congressional finding that the dam project was financially unsound to finish even at 95% complete, and the fact that the dam would submerge some of the oldest human artifacts in the country, the dam was completed and stands today. The Snail Darter and the Dam details the grueling work of grassroots activism and the hazards of bureaucracy and entrenched interests.

WHY THIS BOOK?

This summer, I read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, a tale of water administration. Before moving west, I had no idea what skullduggery surrounded the history of water rights. Reisner’s description of the Tellico Dam battle, though brief, was intriguing. Snail Darter was written so recently by a member of the legal team, a different perspective than that offered in Cadillac Desert.

THE GOOD

Snail Darter is the story of a young law professor who follows sound and sober reason and is battered by our bureaucratic institutions. He loses his job, and works himself to exhaustion trying to achieve the impossible: getting members of the bureaucracy and government to see a deeply-flawed bureau project for what it is. He fails.

Snail Darter is the story of a region’s struggles against the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The Little Tennessee River was one of the last free-flowing rivers in the backyard of the energy bureaucracy behemoth. It was one of the last fly fishing rivers in the east. It was the site of Cherokee settlements dating back over 10,000 years, many with religious significance. It was fertile farmland. In spite of this, the TVA wanted to build a dam that wouldn’t even supply power. It was originally pitched as a way to grow an industrial city anchored by Boeing. After Boeing backed out, the TVA continued to fight for their pointless and destructive project. The locals fought the dam starting in the mid 60’s. Lawyer and author Zygmunt Plater joined the fight in 1974.

Conservatives like Sean Hannity, Antonin Scalia, and George Will still invoke the snail darter as a symbol of environmentalism run amok. How ironic—the darter was the last means for locals to halt an impractical dam foisted upon them by a federal bureaucracy.  As Plater tells it, the darter was only successful in holding up the dam because of the deep unsoundness of the project. At last, there was a mechanism to force scrutiny upon the insane project, a back door by which to achieve oversight. Opposition to Tellico Dam should have been bipartisan—it was porkbarrel without economic upshot.

People don’t remember that part of the story because the media failed. Walter Cronkite called the lawsuit “frivolous.” Respected giants like the New York Times and ABC framed the lawsuit as an intractable conflict between economics and environment rather than covering the project’s flaws. They failed to cover the situation of farmers like Nell McCall; only 3 of her 90 acres would be submerged by the reservoir but the TVA would buy her out at suppressed prices to sell to the industrial city that no longer had tenants. If we think that media is flawed today, unable to give nuance and factual coverage, well, it’s nothing new.

Plater describes the support of grassroots organizations in Washington, DC. These are the counterparts to the lobbyists of K Street, devoted and passionate people who sleep on couches or at their desks waging an unfunded but righteous battle. Plater received extensive help from Anne Wickham of Friends of the Earth, Dave Conrad of America Rivers, and others.

Snail Darter describes the “Iron Triangle” that supports bureaucracies like the TVA. In the Iron Triangle, congress, bureaucracies, and interest groups support one another in the advancement of projects, each reinforcing one another’s weak points. For Tellico Dam, connected members of congress supported the TVA, which was supported by private construction companies. These three groups can mobilize money, media, and attack dogs that a grass roots organization can’t hope to oppose. In the case of Tellico Dam, the Iron Triangle triumphed over a Supreme Court ruling, economic inviability, and a hostile president, leading to the dam’s completion in 1979.

irontriangle

From Wikipedia: the Iron Triangle, showing how congress, interest groups, and the bureaucracies have interwoven incentives.

 

THE BAD

The subject matter is depressing. But as a meat eater has an obligation to understand that his steak once belonged to a cow, I’d argue an American has an obligation to learn about the making of law. It’s ugly. And in Snail Darter, a totally awful project is built for the vanity of a few removed bureaucrats, over the protest and struggle of hundreds. But they wouldn’t have succeeded if more people had cared when it mattered.

OVERALL

Snail Darter peeks inside government and bureaucracy. It shows what happens when media fails to be the fourth estate. 40 years later, the snail darter controversy remains misunderstood.

Today, we hope the media will be vigilant and informative; we hope it will stand up to government apparatus if it abuses people. Snail Darter suggests a certain pessimism to that hope, but it also provides an instruction manual for how accountability can work. In Plater’s tale, grassroots organizations interacted with congress and tried to inform the media. Donations to organizations like the ACLU and SPLC have skyrocketed recently. That’s encouraging.

I’m not a law buff, but Snail Darter was engrossing. If you are American and have ever liked a nonfiction book, I recommend this one.

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