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The Snail Darter and the Dam

The Snail Darter and the Dam: How Pork-Barrel Politics Endangered a Little Fish and Killed a River

Zygmunt J. B. Plater
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    The Snail Darter and the Dam
    Book Description:

    Even today, thirty years after the legal battles to save the endangered snail darter, the little fish that blocked completion of a TVA dam is still invoked as an icon of leftist extremism and governmental foolishness. In this eye-opening book, the lawyer who with his students fought and won the Supreme Court case-known officially asTennessee Valley Authority v. Hill-tells the hidden story behind one of the nation's most significant environmental law battles.

    The realities of the darter's case, Plater asserts, have been consistently mischaracterized in politics and the media. This book offers a detailed account of the six-year crusade against a pork-barrel project that made no economic sense and was flawed from the start. In reality TVA's project was designed for recreation and real estate development. And at the heart of the little group fighting the project in the courts and Congress were family farmers trying to save their homes and farms, most of which were to be resold in a corporate land development scheme. Plater's gripping tale of citizens navigating the tangled corridors of national power stimulates important questions about our nation's governance, and at last sets the snail darter's record straight.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19526-2
    Subjects: Law, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: God Is Speaking, by Committee
    (pp. 1-5)

    A packed crowd sits hunched forward on folding chairs in a big, stark meeting room at the Department of Interior headquarters in Washington. The ceiling lights glare above eight obviously important men who sit ill at ease at a long table at the front of the room, as several staffers with flip charts and an overhead projector present maps, chronologies, analytical data, and multiple columns of big numbers.

    This morning is a moment unprecedented in human history. Really. For the first time, a conscious decision is being made whether an entire species of living creatures will be condemned to extinction,...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Of Time, a River, and the Tennessee Valley Authority
    (pp. 6-30)

    Two hundred million years ago sharp volcanic thrusts drove a long line of jagged mountains upward from the flatlands that would later become the eastern United States. Slowly over the following millennia the rains and winds softened and smoothed the heights until the Appalachians had become a great deal smaller and gentler than the Rockies, their younger relatives to the west. Though it didn’t yet have a name, a good fraction of the water that shaped and drained the southern part of the mountains over that span of two hundred million years flowed westward in crevices and streams that joined...

  6. CHAPTER 2 At the Old Fort: The Start of a Small Crusade for a Little Fish
    (pp. 31-55)

    Even in October, the shadows right after sunset glow warm purple in a Tennessee dusk. The headlights of our little white Fiat probe the shadows along the road as my traveling companion, law student Hank Hill, points the way down to Vonore from Knoxville across the Highway 411 bridge, then up along the west bank of the Little Tennessee River on a potholed blacktop road not wide enough for a center line. Now the headlight beams bounce up and down as we turn onto a dirt road cutting back toward the river and bump our way over rocks and ruts...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Pushing the Snail Darter onto the Endangered Species List
    (pp. 56-87)

    By the end of the Saturday night meeting at old Fort Loudoun a core group has pulled itself together to try the novel endangered species tactic. Nothing will come of it, however, unless and until we can persuade the Department of Interior to put the snail darter on the official endangered species list. If it’s not on the list, it’s not legally an endangered species and the law won’t apply.

    This “list” isn’t actually a separate document. It’s a collection of individual Department of Interior rules, each declaring a species officially endangered or threatened. Each listing rule has to be...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Trial and Tribulation in TVA’s Home Court
    (pp. 88-111)

    “Do you really think,” Judge Taylor winces from the bench at one point during the April trial, “that Congress would want me to stop an important project for just any endangered creature, for somered-eyed cricket?” The courtroom regulars chuckle in unison at the judge’s witticism. Uh-oh. This doesn’t sound good for us and the snail darter, telegraphing as it does that the judge thinks our case isn’t serious.

    Long before we got to this moment at trial, we knew who our trial judge would be, and that he would be difficult. Judge Robert Love Taylor is the only federal...

  9. CHAPTER 5 An Appeal for Justice as Bulldozers Roll
    (pp. 112-119)

    “There was a meeting yesterday. Lawyers and construction engineers,” reports a former student now working for TVA. “They were making plans. They said by the time you stand up to argue the appeal in Cincinnati, there won’t be a single tree left standing in the reservoir area.”

    It’s called the “sunk cost” strategy. Worried about citizen opposition, project promoters try to get as much construction done and spend as much money as possible before opponents can bring effective questions to bear. It’s a basic rule of any enterprise, public or private: “a rolling stone gathers momentum.” The object is to...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Snail Darter Goes to Washington
    (pp. 120-159)

    “Get your butts up here! You’re getting killed on Capitol Hill!” It’s David Conrad from American Rivers. It’s February 2, three days after network evening news proclaimed an unknown minnow’s surprising defeat of TVA’s Tellico Dam in the federal Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

    “Brent and I just came back from the weekly meeting of environmental lobbyists on the Hill. Everyone was talking about the darter—but they’re treating it as an embarrassment. There’s big trouble. You need to get here, quick!”

    “What’s the problem? We won! Doesn’t that give us some credibility?”

    “No, it’s the opposite. Before, only a...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Endangered, on the Banks of the Potomac
    (pp. 160-187)

    In the early 1800s, on the farmlands and river-edge marshes that border the Potomac River, the revolutionaries who had fended off King George III went about consolidating a capital for their young republic. They built government offices, residences, shops, and taverns—the structures of civil society—and raised only one small city defense, Fort Washington, on the riverbank downstream. The British army, when it returned in 1814, did an end-around behind the fort, marched into the young city, and burned it to the ground. The lesson was hard but remains useful: consolidate, but prepare to defend.

    The snail darter’s defenders...

  12. CHAPTER 8 The Snail Darter Gets Its Congressional Hearings
    (pp. 188-210)

    Back in March, oversight hearings on the Endangered Species Act as a whole and the snail darter in particular had been tentatively scheduled for June in the House subcommittee and July in the Senate subcommittee. Having seen eruptions of public attention created by other congressional oversight hearings, we’re salivating at the prospect. Walking the corridors of Congress we often pass hearing rooms crowded with reporters, bundles of TV cables duct-taped to marble floors and snaking out and down corridors to mobile broadcasting vans for remote feeds to the evening news. Imagine how this kind of coverage carrying Tellico Dam facts...

  13. CHAPTER 9 The Highest Court?
    (pp. 211-269)

    The evening news gave us the word on November 14: the Supreme Court wants to hear the snail darter case in April. Immediately we were thrown into the turmoil faced by every lawyer who gets that news—weeks of labor preparing a killer brief and oral argument to sway the highest, toughest court in the land. (In our case, moreover, a month into our preparations we’re hit with an almost unprecedented twist that looks as if it will make our day in the Court even tougher.)

    It was obvious from the moment we won our injunction from the court of...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Another Trial and Vindication, in the God Tribunal
    (pp. 270-289)

    Here’s a scene I wish I could have avoided: It’s midafternoon and I was moving fast down a marble corridor in the Russell Senate Office Building when, rounding a corner, I almost plowed into a senator, Iowa’s John Culver. As I backed away, I saw that he’d recognized me, and as soon as he did he exploded: “Goddammit, what is this crap you’re putting out?” He cornered me up against the wall. I weigh about 149 pounds. According to the Harvard varsity football archives, John Culver weighed more than 215 pounds back in the 1950s when he played fullback on...

  15. CHAPTER 11 140 Days of a Slow-Ticking Clock, Ending in 42 Seconds
    (pp. 290-323)

    Will the God Committee’s dramatic verdict create a breakthrough for the little fish and the Endangered Species Act? On its face the clear economic victory for the darter and the river is legally the final chapter; no more procedures remain to be satisfied. It’s time to consolidate the lessons so painfully learned about the dam project into positive and enlightening action. Get farmers back on their farms, start a tourist flow up through the valley’s historic sites to the national park, and make sure the darter is securely back on its Coytee shoals.

    The committee’s high-level vindication of our years...

  16. CHAPTER 12 A Phone Call from Air Force One
    (pp. 324-341)

    A little after nine on a Tuesday night two weeks after Congress passed the override bill, the phone bank rings in the cramped upstairs office of the Sierra Club. Drew Diehl, a Sierra Club staffer who was working late, answers the blinking line, then turns to me and says, “It’s for you.”

    “Professor Plater? We have a call for you coming in from Air Force One, the president of the United States. Will you take it?”

    Is the White House communications guy kidding? For the past two weeks we’ve been waiting for this call.

    Shortly after the Senate accepted the...

  17. EPILOGUE: A Few Years Later, on the CBS Evening News
    (pp. 342-352)

    “The final story onCBS Evening Newstonight comes to us from Tennessee. . . .”

    “For four years,” anchorman Dan Rather reminds his national audience, “the snail darter, a finger-sized endangered fish, blocked completion of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s $150-million Tellico Dam project on the Little Tennessee River. . . .” (The camera shifts away from Rather to an aerial view of a low dam in Tennessee farm country. Backed up behind it, a serpentine reservoir twists thirty-three miles up the middle of the valley into the misty distance, where the Smoky Mountains rise up from the plain.)


  18. Notes
    (pp. 353-360)
  19. Index
    (pp. 361-369)