David takes on goliath
Greater Hells Canyon Council was founded in 1967 (as Hells Canyon Preservation Council). It was the era of Big Dams; Idaho Power was planning to construct the High Mountain Sheep Dam, whose creation would have drowned the wild and magnificent Hells Canyon forever.
When a group of hiking buddies from Idaho Falls learned of the plans to dam Hells Canyon, they formed HCPC to save their beloved retreat. These hiking buddies happened to be nuclear physicists, and they arranged meetings with Idaho Power officials, coming armed with slide rules and detailed questions about the proposed dam—detailed enough that Idaho Power decided to call in their lawyers. (Read a wonderful short history on these first days here.)
HCPC then joined forces with a young lawyer from the Sierra Club, Brock Evans, who filed an injunction with the courts to temporarily hold the dam's construction at bay. To everyone’s surprise, the injunction worked! HCPC and its allies now had some breathing room to carefully consider what they wanted. Stopping the dam was not enough—they had a larger vision for a protected Hells Canyon, wild and free for animals, plants, and recreation.
After years of campaigning in Washington, DC and in Hells Canyon country, HCPC and its allies prevailed. On December 31, 1975, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Act.
Timeline: The Battle to Save Hells Canyon
Click each year to learn more
1964 1967 1969 1970 1971 1972 1973 1975
The Federal Power Commission (FPC) grants a license to the Pacific Northwest Power Company (PNPC) to build the High Mountain Sheep Dam. Washington Public Power Supply System sues the FPC, arguing that the approval of a privately built dam is against public interest.
The dam was proposed to be built one mile upstream from the confluence of the Snake and Salmon Rivers, and would have flooded both Hells Canyon and the Imnaha Canyon. Historic mock up of the High Mountain Sheep Dam courtesy of The Wallowa County Chieftain.
Russ Mager shows slides of the threatened Hells Canyon to the Idaho Alpine Club. A group of hiking buddings present decide to form the Hells Canyon Preservation Council.
The Sierra Club directs their newly appointed northwest representative Brock Evans to save the canyon from the dam.
The Supreme Court surprises everyone by remanding the High Mountain Sheep case back to the FPC, and questioning whether a dam should be built at all. Brock Evans files a petition to join the case as an intervener.
Evans and The Wilderness Society’s Clif Merritt meet with leaders of the newly formed HCPC at Willow Bar Camp in Hells Canyon.
September 25: Evans’s petition is granted, making this the first time a case to preserve wilderness would be presented in a court. Evans and co-counsel Tom Brucker spend the next three years arguing their case in court.
Trip to Willow Bar Camp. From left to right: J. Jayne, T. Davis, B. Evans (SC), R. Evans, C. Merritt (TWS), F. Harvey.
Evans travels to Washington DC to advocate for a wild Snake River. A lucky connection earns him a meeting with the Undersecretary of the Interior. Within a month of this meeting, the Department of the Interior stops supporting new dam construction.
Photographer Boyd Norton gets a proposed “National River” bill and photos of Hells Canyon on Senator Robert Packwood’s (R-OR) desk. Packwood introduces the bill with 26 co-sponsors.
Representative John Saylor (R-PA) introduces a National River companion bill to Congress.
Boyd Norton invites radio and TV host Arthur Godfrey and the Associated Press, United Press, and CBS to Idaho boatman Floyd Harvey’s ranch. The press campaign to save the canyon has begun! Despite getting many decision makers into the canyon, little progress is made on moving the National River bill forward.
A very different vision for Hells Canyon, courtesy of the Wallowa County Chieftain.
The Judge hearing the case re-issues the license to build the High Mountain Sheep Dam, but issues a three year moratorium on building, during which the conservationists could seek legislation from Congress.
Larry Williams, Joe Walicki, and Brock Evans testify before Congress.
Dale Jones of Friends of the Earth arranges a float trip with folk singers Jimmy Collier and Pete Seger to help raise public support for saving Hells Canyon.
Senator Frank Church (D-ID) formally renounces his previous pro-dam position and suggests Hells Canyon become a National Recreation Area.
Photo of Pete Seeger and Boyd Norton (at oars) by Larry Williams.
HCPC President Pete Henault and Doug Scott of the Sierra Club work with congressional staff to draft a new bill that synthesizes the best of previously proposed bills, drafts, and strategy memos. The new bill provides for no dams; wild and scenic river status; and wilderness for the canyon walls on both sides of the river.
June 2: After months of delays, the Senate approves the “four Senators” bill, shifting the pressure onto Congress. Power interests attempt to introduce language into the congressional bill that would protect only the lower half of the river from dam building, but the bill is introduced to vote without these amendments.
November 12: Senate passes the Hells Canyon Bill.
November 18: House passes the Hells Canyon Bill.
December 31: Victory!!! President Gerald Ford signs the act to establish the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area in Oregon and Idaho, saving Hells Canyon from the High Mountain Sheep or any other dam, and designating over 200,000 acres of wilderness and 71 miles of river as wild.
More Historic Wins
- Expanded the Hells Canyon and Eagle Cap Wilderness Areas.
- Included the Imnaha, Wallowa, Grande Ronde, Minam, and Lostine Rivers (and Eagle Creek) into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
- Garnered national media attention including: The Wall Street Journal; ABC World News Tonight; National Geographic Traveler; and Pacific Northwest Magazine.
- Developed the Native Ecosystem Alternative, a comprehensive policy blueprint for Ecosystem restoration in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area (HCNRA).
- Litigated to validate the ecosystem and wilderness protection priority in the HCNRA, and compelled the U.S. Forest Service to develop special regulations requiring that human activities be compatible with ecosystem protection.
- Recognized by the National Awards Council for Environmental Sustainability.
- Protected native bighorn sheep herds from lethal diseases by eliminating domestic sheep grazing from the Oregon side of the HCNRA.
- Defeated legislation that would have: 1) extended motorized access and development on the west rim of the Canyon, and 2) allowed unlimited jet boat use on the Wild and Scenic portions of the Snake River.
- Recognized again by the National Awards Council for Environmental Sustainability.
- Inspired the U.S. Forest Service to implement the first ever jet-boat-free area on the Snake Wild and Scenic River.
- Ushered in the new Hells Canyon Comprehensive Management Plan, which made restoration and conservation a priority in the HCNRA and was based largely on our Native Ecosystem Alternative submitted in 1994.
- Won litigation finding the Forest Service failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in promulgating special regulations governing land uses on private lands within the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
- Protected lynx habitat by stopping three timber sales on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest that were designed with faulty lynx habitat mapping. The court also found the entire lynx mapping and conservation strategy was in violation of NEPA and the National Forest Management Act for the failure to undergo full environmental analysis and public involvement.
- On February 11, 2005, the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission adopted the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. HCPC was a major player on the Citizen’s Advisory Panel convened to help draft the Oregon Wolf Plan.
- Prevailed on five claims related to the Forest Service’s reconstruction of the Kirkwood Road in the HCNRA. The Federal District Court of Oregon determined that the reconstruction promoted both legal and illegal motorized use as well as related invasive weed spread and native plant loss.
- Convened the Hells Canyon Stewardship & Restoration Collaborative. The Collaborative is a diverse group, with its members working together to implement the Comprehensive Management Plan of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
- Prevailed in a lawsuit challenging destructive mining operations in the Blue Mountains’ North Fork Burnt River watershed, creating a major chink in the 1872 mining law in a decision with national precedent-setting implications. The U.S. District Court finally set the record straight: any purported “right” to mine does not trump the public’s right to basic environmental protection.
- Protected bighorn sheep from disease by stopping all domestic sheep grazing in Hells Canyon in 2007. For the first time in over 100 years there is no domestic sheep grazing on either side of Hells Canyon!
- Stopped the logging of 651 acres of old growth on the Bald Angel timber sale, near the Eagle Cap Wilderness in the Wallowas.
- Prevailed in the Snow Basin court case, saving over 40,000 large and old growth trees from being cut from land adjacent to the Eagle Cap Wilderness in the Wallowas.