I was surprised to read a News-Miner editorial extolling the benefits of building mega-hydroelectric projects in Alaska that included a reprint of a 60-year-old article about the Rampart Dam. While I understand and support the need to address Alaska’s energy needs, I do hope that the News-Miner is not suggesting that the Rampart Dam project should be revived. The Rampart proposal might have “opened up dramatic possibilities” for Alaska industry in 1959 (although even those possibilities were seriously questioned), but it also would have had dramatic consequences for quite a few Alaskans. Those consequences resulted in the project being placed where it belonged: in the historical trash can.
Here is the rest of the story of the Rampart Dam and the reasons it was not feasible then and would not be feasible today.
Location was everything, and when the dam was proposed in 1954, the Army Corps of Engineers had a plan for a dam in the Rampart Canyon that would have created a lake around the size of Lake Erie. There was just one small problem: The reservoir upstream would have inundated nine villages along with wetlands that annually produced millions of waterfowl as well as other game. For obvious reasons, Alaska Natives living in the Yukon Flats opposed this development. Villages that would have been impacted included Rampart, Stevens Village, Beaver, Venetie Landing, Fort Yukon, Birch Creek, Circle, Canyon Village and Chalkyitsik.
The United States has a history of inundating American Indian communities in the name of hydropower, transportation or water supply for urban areas. Examples include the Kinzua Dam in Pennsylvania, Garrison Dam in North Dakota and Tellico Dam in Tennessee, all of which displaced large Indian communities. Others in various states including Washington, and Arizona, collectively destroyed thousands of acres of traditional fishing sites, agricultural and grazing lands, sacred sites and burial grounds. Perhaps the Corps of Engineers did not want Alaska Natives to feel left out?
The lack of concern expressed for human Yukon Flats residents by proponents of the project was equaled only by their lack of concern for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates of the annual loss of 1.5 million ducks, 12,800 geese, 10,000 cranes, 20,000 grebes, 13,000 moose and 3.6 million commercial fur animals also living there. Sen. Ernest Gruening complained that “the two-legged species is not entitled to a habitat,” apparently forgetting that there were actually two-legged inhabitants living in the location to be flooded. Gruening’s administrative assistant referred to the area as worthless because there were not more than 10 flush toilets there, as though the lives of those living without such a fixture were not worth considering. And Gruening called the area a worthless swamp, useless for human habitation and scenically zero.
Boosters of the project were not the only ones to ignore the Native residents. In a short editorial from September 1964, The New York Times opined about the damage the dam would do to large populations of wildlife, migratory birds and fish. The article was shocking not for its concern for wildlife, which most opponents of the dam shared, but because of the complete omission of any mention of the human population. One can only hope that the Times simply did not know they were there.
Fortunately, back then, conservation organizations, hunters, Alaska Native groups including the Alaska Native Brotherhood, and the Fish and Wildlife Service took a firm stance against the project, and it was shelved in 1967. There it should stay forever.
Today we know that the lives of Alaska Native residents of the Yukon Flats have equal value with the lives of all Alaskans. They are no more deserving than anyone else of having the homes they love and the land they depend on inundated in the name of “development.” We know too, that dams have serious environmental consequences both upstream and downstream of the structure. We know that river impoundments negatively affect salmon runs and those who depend on them. We know that impeding an annual salmon migration would violate the Yukon River Salmon Agreement (part of the Pacific Salmon Treaty between the U.S. and Canada) and impact the 52 communities on both sides of the border with Canada that share the resource.
Today we need to look forward and work together to find ways to meet our energy needs in ways that do not damage the lands and waters and the people and animals that live there. As Alaskans we owe it to each other to cause no harm with development.
Jenny Bell-Jones is chair emeritus of the Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This work represents her own opinion and not that of the department.