A last-minute amendment insinuated into an Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act last June authorized the Tennessee Valley Authority to complete the Tellico Dam near Knoxville “notwithstanding the Endangered Species Act or any other law.” This high-handed and very dangerous precedent is thought to be the first such rider ever to put an unfinished federal construction project beyond all legal restraint. On September 25, President Carter failed to veto HR4388 as he had been urged to do by members of his own cabinet. One of the oldest and most evil-smelling public works project in the country thus achieved through procedural tricks and political blackmail what it had never been able to win in a fair hearing. On November 29, when the flood gates were lowered, a small perch called the snail darter, whose last natural habitat was the last free-flowing stretch of the Little Tennessee River, became the first living creature ever consigned willfully into oblivion.
Though only one of many urgent reasons why the Tellico Dam should never have been started, this little fish was taken up by the press and television to the virtual exclusion of more fundamental issues. Even philosophical defenders of the darter became troubled by the trivialized controversy as set out by the dam’s advocates and parroted in newspapers and on TV. Did the perpetuation of a “useless” three-inch “min-now” justify the waste and loss of energy that would result from abandoning a nearly completed $120-million hydroelectric dam? As I discovered in early November, when I went down to the Little Tennessee River to have a look at the historic valley before it disappeared, this presentation of the case was false from beginning to end.
The TVA and its long-time supporters, led by local politicians and developers, big corporations, and labor unions, claimed that Tellico Lake—which would be created by the dam—was needed for recreation, improved navigation, and flood control. Much of the shoreline of the lake, they said, would be used for industrial development, providing jobs in this depressed pocket of western Appalachia, and the dam would make a vital contribution to hydroelectric energy production in the region. In fact, twenty-four major dams and lakes already exist within sixty miles of Tellico, and most of them have large stretches of undeveloped shores. The claims that the dam will improve recreation, navigation, and flood control turn out to be hollow, and as for the energy contribution, this dam contains no electric generator of any kind; it will produce no more than twenty-three megawatts (out of a current TVA regional capacity of 27,000) by means of a diversion canal through the nearby Ft. Loudoun Dam on the Tennessee River.
How many Americans, I wonder, are even aware that the Tellico is a small dam in a 38,000-acre project and that most of the $110-million that allegedly would be “wasted” if it is not completed was actually spent on speculative acquisition and road development of 22,000 acres that were never intended to be flooded? Appreciation in value of the proposed lakeside properties has long ago offset the $22 million in materials and labor (exactly one-fifth of the figure used for public consumption) that is the true cost of the dam and its embankments. And the TVA often took over these properties by right of eminent domain, with little or no concern for the rights of the legal owners. In a typical case, the TVA condemned the ninety-acre farm of an elderly widow, Mrs. Nellie McCall, even though less than two acres were to be flooded. (“I offered to give them that for nothing,” Mrs. McCall said, “but they said everybody had to go.”) Under the circumstances, the 341 families evicted from their hard-won homesteads to make room for speculators in lakeside lots may be forgiven for calling the whole ruthless enterprise “a land grab.”
During the Depression, when the Tellico Dam was first conceived, the claims made for it later may have seemed valid: the TVA, in fact, had been set up to help the impoverished regional economy. Since then, the TVA has ossified into a huge, autonomous bureaucracy, influenced by special interest groups tied to federal agencies. Grown immense at the bulging pork barrel of highway, dam, and waterway construction, the TVA requires increasingly vast projects and appropriations merely to justify its girth—hence the oppressive grid of steel and concrete that has locked up the rivers of this region into a chain of stagnant ponds descending from the mountains all the way west to the Mississippi.
The Tellico, which proposed to throttle the last wild stretch of the Little Tennessee, seemed like one dam too many even to the US Congress, where it has been debated annually for the past fifteen years. But the TVA was only one of the forces in Tennessee that wanted this dam badly and the state’s congressmen and senators, notably Senator Howard Baker, were encouraged to persist far beyond the call of duty. Funds for the dam were finally appropriated in 1966, but construction, started the next year, was halted in 1971 by a coalition of local people and environmentalists, who were able to demonstrate in court that the project flouted the National Environmental Policy Act. Thus, the shortcomings of Tellico were obvious well before the summer day in 1973 when an ichthyologist named David Etnier discovered a small, pretty, banded perch unknown to science at Coytee Springs, a few miles above the half-built dam.
Biologists subsequently concluded that the original range of Percina tanasi—which needs a clear, cool flow of water to oxygenate its clean pebble-bottom spawning beds—included most of the Tennessee River drainage; it was only after the TVA had despoiled 2500 miles of wild river that this species has been confined to the Little Tennessee. A volunteer lawyer, Zygmunt Plater, who has fought for six years against the Tellico, recalls the meeting when the Valley farmers agreed to file a suit on behalf of the darter under the Endangered Species Act of 1973: “I lived on this river all my life and I never heard of it,” said Asa McCall (who died a few years later, and whose widow, Nellie, now seventy-five, was one of the last holdouts against TVA seizure). “But if this little fish can help us lick this thing, then I’m all for it.”
Almost overnight, the darter was taken up by the press as a cute idea, a little finny David fighting the Goliath of modern progress, but before too long (together with an obscure Maine weed called the Furbish lousewort) it became a kind of national joke. The joke was made much of by Tellico’s proponents, who saw that the public would soon lose sympathy for a “useless minnow” that was said to be wasting energy as well as money, and eventually this ridiculed small creature, used originally as a delaying action, was doing the cause a lot more harm than good. It was also claimed that the fish had been transferred successfully into nearby streams: in fact, two of the three transplanted populations have died out, and the third is threatened by the acid spills and other pollutants in the Hiwassee River.
Meanwhile, the TVA had acquired a new board of directors, and with it a strange ambivalence toward the project. In a letter to Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus, in April 1978, the TVA chairman, David Freeman, conceded that “Contrary to TVA position, forming a permanent lake is not vital to the Tellico Project and may not even be the option with the greatest public benefits.” Subsequently, a 258-page TVA document, “Alternatives for Completing the Tellico Project,” acknowledged that income from the valuable farmland to be flooded would probably exceed the “projected benefits”1 of the new lake by nearly a million dollars a year; that $14 million in additional construction would be needed before the dam could pass safety requirements; that annual dam maintenance would substantially exceed its income; that local job opportunities created by the dam were outnumbered by those that would be lost; and that aside from the Endangered Species Act, the dam was in legal difficulties on numerous counts, including the Historic Preservation Act, the Environmental Policy Act, the Rivers and Harbors Act, the Clean Water Act, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, and the Executive Order on Floodplain Management, none of which the TVA had complied with. (“TVA does not argue the law,” one lawyer told me. “They argue that they are above the law.”)
Even the TVA, in short, had now concluded that its dam made no practical sense whatever. From other points of view—moral, aesthetic, and environmental—the dam was what the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial of September 27 called “an abomination of irresponsibility…a towering symbol of almost everything that is rotten in the District of Columbia.” A beautiful river known affectionately throughout the state as the “Little T” has been stopped up like a clogged pork barrel to create a muddy artificial lake. Silted beneath this superfluous lake will lie not only the drowned homesteads of hundreds of defenseless people but also 16,000 acres of some of the richest riverbottom farmland in the US, and a historical treasure perhaps as important as all these other losses put together: the hundreds of archaeological sites in the Little Tennessee Valley include not only ancient mounds but the buried ruins of the Seven Towns that two centuries ago were the sacred center of the Cherokee Nation, the largest and most powerful tribe in the southeastern United States.
Most Eastern Cherokee—over five thousand—now live on the Qualla Boundary reservation in the Blue Ridge Mountains, just across the North Carolina border, but the Little Tennessee remains their spiritual homeland. In the words of an Indian named Jimmie Durham, who testified before a House committee two years ago, “Is there a human being who does not revere his homeland, even though he may not return?… In our own history, we teach that we were created there, which is truer than anthropological truth because it was there that we were given our vision as the Cherokee people.” A report2 prepared for the TVA by Department of the Interior archaeologists—dated May 24, 1979, but mysteriously withheld until after the final Tellico appropriations were signed into law by President Carter on September 25—ascribes “world-wide significance” to these sites, declaring that “the physical records of American prehistory present in Tellico cannot be matched in any other area this size in the continent.”
Why were the great historical values of this river, not to speak of its sacred importance to the Indians, given virtually no mention in the national debate on the Tellico Dam? For it seems clear that if the public had been fairly informed of the true nature of what was being perpetrated at Tellico, the public servants could never have got away with it. Even seeing the valley of the Little Tennessee might have sufficed: I had not expected that the place would be so lovely. On the first day of my visit, in the soft light of early November, the muted fire colors of the fall, the white and moss-green faces of the rock walls at the river bends were reflected like memories of other centuries in the clear, swift water rolling down from the blue ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the east. The day was filled with drifting leaves, the rich mineral smell of humus, the autumn calls of birds. “You don’t have to be a Cherokee to feel the spiritual power here,” murmured Roy Warren, a local environmentalist and amateur archaeologist who had fought for years against the loss of the “Little T,” and who had kindly volunteered to share his knowledge. Mr. Warren had met me at Fort Loudoun, site of the first British outpost west of the Appalachians, and from where we stood, just upriver of the Tellico Stream, we could see the tattered cornfield that marks the buried town known as Tuskegee, birthplace of Sequoyah, the great Cherokee teacher whose name has been commemorated in a national park as well as a mighty tree. The Indians planted corn, beans, peas, potatoes, pumpkins, cabbages, melons, and tobacco, and Gerhard de Brahm, the surveyor-general who designed Fort Loudoun in 1756, recognized the superb quality of the topsoil in this “American Canaan,” which he deemed “equal to manure itself.” Yet the white men had to be restrained by the Indians from building their fort right on top of the rich gardens.
TVA's candor about "projected benefits" would be more impressive in the absence of a congressional study made by the General Accounting Office in 1977, which concluded not only that the dam was uneconomic but that all but about 1 percent of its dam benefit claims were unreliable.↩
"Cultural Resources of the Tellico Project" (May 24, 1979) (TV-50461A), Interagency Archeological Services, Department of the Interior.↩
TVA’s candor about “projected benefits” would be more impressive in the absence of a congressional study made by the General Accounting Office in 1977, which concluded not only that the dam was uneconomic but that all but about 1 percent of its dam benefit claims were unreliable.↩
“Cultural Resources of the Tellico Project” (May 24, 1979) (TV-50461A), Interagency Archeological Services, Department of the Interior.↩