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Dam Politics

Fort Peck dam in black and white

When the famous photographer Margaret Bourke-White (wikipedia) made her iconic 1936 Life magazine cover shot of the still under construction spillway at Fort Peck Dam – the very first cover of the magazine – the country had no environmental impact statements.

A cost-benefit analysis? Huh, what’s that?

There was no Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1930′s to assess how the massive dam across the Missouri River would impact fish or whether whole species might be endangered by drastically altering habitat. The Fort Peck Tribes weren’t consulted. The states of Montana and North Dakota had little role beyond having their federal elected officials weigh in on the project.

In fact, Fort Peck was constructed with no congressional authorization whatsoever. Franklin D. Roosevelt (read online biography) simply decided to build the dam after he was lobbied by Montana Sen. Burton K. Wheeler (read online biography) and others. Roosevelt could do that because the Congress had granted him, and him alone, the authority under New Deal-era relief legislation to spend billions of dollars building things and putting thousands of the unemployed back to work.

Construction began on Fort Peck late in 1933 and by 1936 more than 10,000 were laboring on the massive project in the far northeastern corner of Montana. They built a town – Fort Peck – as the administrative center of the Corps of Engineers project, but many workers preferred to set up housekeeping in haphazardly constructed shanty town with names like New Deal and Wheeler. The booze ran day and night in these places even though Montana was still legally dry. The prices were sky high but you could buy anything, including certain services in an area known as Happy Hollow. Over the course of construction at Fort Peck, it was largely finished by 1940, it is estimated that 50,000 different people were employed on the dam.

All this becomes truly amazing to consider when you also realize that nearly the same level of construction was underway at Grand Coulee Dam (visit webpage for more info) on the upper Columbia in Washington and Bonneville Dam (visit webpage for more info) downstream in Oregon. Three massive, expensive public works projects underway at the same time. It simply couldn’t happen today. Times and politics and priorities are so much different.

Creating the political consensus alone today to build such a big project would be next to impossible. The permitting and environmental analysis alone would cost more than one of the big dams cost in the 1930′s. It’s probably all too the good. We have a different – and mostly better – political and policy making process now than FDR had to contend with – or was it relish – during the Great Depression.

Barack Obama’s stimulus package is still roundly debated in Washington and across the country and its doubtful if such legislation could be passed at the moment. Yet, what FDR did in 1933 in rural Montana was precisely the idea behind the “stimulus” spending that the country tried in 2009

Fort Peck was enormously popular. Obama’s stimulus not so much (read politico article). One poll a year ago found nearly two-thirds of Americans thinking the effort had been a failure.

When Sen. Wheeler ran for re-election in 1934, having championed the dam, he won Montana’s Valley County where the dam is located by a rather comfortable margin of 83% to 17%. He swamped his GOP opponent statewide with 70% of the vote. It didn’t hurt Wheeler that his Republican opponent criticized the New Deal and said Fort Peck would be just a “nice duck or fish pond.”

Perhaps the difference from 1933 to 2009, from a long-ago Fort Peck Dam project to a current freeway interchange project, was that Roosevelt’s Depression-era stimulus spending was so very obvious. It’s hard to miss what was then the world’s largest earthen dam under construction or 10,000 workers building tar paper shacks on the plains of Montana and featured on the color cover of a glossy new magazine.

It’s been said, correctly, that the era of the big dams is dead and gone. We’ll likely never see another Fort Peck or Grand Coulee, and that’s probably a good thing for a lot of reasons. Still, those massive, job-producing projects were a godsend at a time when politics and policy were more easily controlled and when we naively believed, given enough dirt and manpower, that we could bend Mother Nature while we cured the economy.

I spoke at a water conference recently in the shadow of Fort Peck Dam and sponsored by the B.K. Wheeler Center (view website) at Montana State University. I talked about the remarkable political history of the dam but, before unwinding the tale, I asked the audience for a show of hands. How many thought the dam could be built today? Many in the audience grew up with Fort Peck as a neighbor and not a person raised a hand.

Someone suggested later that it was a good question, but another good one would have been: should it have been built? A more difficult question to answer, I suspect. It was built and it still stands as a monument to a different time. Go see it if you get close. We’re not building them like that anymore.