The Political Symbolism of Dams

By: Chris Garrett



“Your power is turning our darkness into dawn so roll on Columbia, roll On.”

 -1930’s folk song “Roll on Columbia” by Woody Guthie


The lines of this song by Woody Guthrie allude to United States’ policy towards rivers in the early part of the 20th century.  Dams were built in America to block the passage of rivers so that water resources could be harnessed to give valuable commodities such as electricity, irrigation and among other things, a means for trade trafficking. So popular have dams been in American, that over 5,500 dams are currently impeding rivers in every portion of the United States, making the U.S the second most dammed country in the world.[1]

  Until very recently, there has been very little opposition to the damming of America.  During the last ten years however, environmentalists and scientists have pointed to the dams as culprits for declining fish populations, habitat destruction, and environmental degradation. Though many contributing factors such as fishing practices and ocean conditions have led to the demise of Pacific salmon, the dams have had a great deal to do with this demise. The National Marine Fisheries Service associates 80 percent of the decline in the salmon populations directly to the Snake River dams.[2] The Army Corps of Engineers agrees.

The aggregate mortality of [salmon] juveniles migrating through this corridor [the 330 miles of continuous reservoir created by the four Snake River Dams] is estimated at between 43 and 95 percent from all causes, both natural and human-caused.  Natural mortality had been estimated at only 10 to 20 percent.[3]

Salmon populations in the Snake River are extremely low, and at the current rates of mortality, many species of salmon could become extinct. In 1964 and 1968, an average of 12,700 returning salmon passed through the Lower Granite Dam. In 1990, only 78 returning salmon passed through the same Dam.[4] The current population of Snake River Chinook Salmon is approximately 0.5 percent of what it was in 1938: a decrease from 72,000 to 350.[5] Over 4,300 Sockeye Salmon, listed as endangered in 1991 under the Endangered Species Act, returned to Redfish Lake in Idaho in the 1960s, just one of the many spawning locations in the Snake River watershed.  In 1992, only one Sockeye Salmon returned to Redfish Lake.[6]

Though much evidence suggests that the four Snake River Dams- Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and Lower Granite, have played a major role in the demise of the Pacific Northwest salmon, the dams are nonetheless still in place, and supported by a very intricate and powerful two-part political scaffold. One part of this power is tied to the political structure of the United States that supports institutions that benefit individual economic gain, even if this gain endangers the environment. Matthew Cahn argues that since our country is based on the political model of liberalism, emphasis within the United States has been one of individual economic self-interest- the whole of society gains or improves by the individual achievements of each of its parts. Since any environmental policy demands that citizens set aside individual self-interests for the communal good of the environment, Cahn argues that in the American political tradition, there is no language for a communal good that does not stress individual economic gain.  Since the Snake River dams have very clear economic benefits to numerous individuals, the removal of them would violate the American tradition of liberalism.

A second reason why the dams have become so powerful politically is because dams also have an emotional element to them as well.  Dams for many imbue feelings of pride since they are feats of engineering, and are testimonies to what man is capable of building.  These types of emotions are what Murry Edelman calls, “condensational symbols,” which, according to Edelman, are situations or objects that conjure up patriotic pride, or other proud remembrances which help to perpetuate the object’s or situation’s existence.  Since dams are condensational symbols, the emotions they imbue help to perpetuate their own existence.  Driving along the highways on either side of the Snake River near Lewiston, Idaho for example, one can see countless shields with the symbol of a dam, a testimony to man taming nature. The pride one feels when one sees a dam makes the political support for these dams no longer simply a result of the benefits that these dams give to the greater community, but rather results from citizens likening these dams to historical markers and symbols of progress of our society.

With so much political power attached to the dams, it seems very unlikely that those who oppose their existence can in fact achieve the end goal of breaching the four lower Snake River dams. Are the proponents to the breaching of the dams up to the challenge?  To answer this question we look at what political forces the environmentalists are using to combat the very strong political scaffold that supports the existence of the dams. In doing so, we see that many of the same political forces that perpetuate the political power of the dams are being used in the crusade to remove them. In fact, environmentalists are using liberalism to combat liberalism, and symbolism to combat symbolism.  Against the image of the dam as symbolic of the engineering achievements of man, the environmentalists depict a mighty wild salmon leaping from a free flowing river.  These groups are attempting to exploit the pride people feel towards the existence of salmon and the sympathy people feel towards a declining and depleted salmon population.  If the salmon can be used as an effective condensational symbol, then environmentalists can appeal to those who wish to save the wild salmon and in the process destroy the dams.  To combat the economic power of the dams, environmentalists are capitalizing on American liberal values by financing many studies which demonstrate that the dams are in fact fiscally inefficient because of the large federal subsidization these dams receive- they are turning around the liberal power associated with the dams to aid in the political cause of their destruction.


Liberalism and Environmentalism: mutually exclusive

Cahn’s historical description of American political development can shed light on why environmental legislation is difficult to pass within the American political system. According to Cahn, our country was founded upon the ideals of Civic Republicanism largely in response to the British autocracy.  Civic Republicanism is based on the theory that citizens give up their individual interests to participate in a state of commonwealths and are willing to balance liberty and authority for the public good.[7] Ultimately, a republican society focuses on the collective good of the people, placing that which benefits only the individual of secondary importance.  Rules within such a society would dictate the individual to forgo that which is beneficial to themselves if it is not congruent with the good of the order.

This very idealistic form of government eventually gave way to Liberalism. Political thinkers came to the realization that self-interested individuals would not be able suppress the innate feelings of greed and competition to support the common good.  In Liberalism, though the possibility for a virtuous society no longer exists, individual interest can be harnessed into economic productivity.  Within Liberalism, a common good for the collective body can be achieved if individual economic activity can support the overall public interest as well. If so, then an entire society gains from the individual success of its people.  Thus, in such circumstances, it is imperative for a liberal society to promote individual economic activity among its members in order to obtain economic development within the larger society.  

            Because of this historical process, the American political tradition of liberal democracy makes for the passage of strong environmental legislation difficult. Since liberalism can focus too closely on the individual economic interests of its constituents, a communal good that puts collective interests above individual gain is overlooked. “Liberalism’s emphasis on individual self-interest creates a problematic concept of communal good.”[8] Thus, environmental legislation which calls for the individual economic activity to be reduced for the betterment of the environment is met with unpopularity since it runs counter to our liberal values. “As a consequence of the parameters imposed by the problematic Liberal definition of communal good, the American policy process is fundamentally limited in its ability to confront environmental issues adequately.”[9] Inherent to any legislation that protects the environment, is the possibility to stop industry, or individuals which use natural resources for the production of manufactured goods or services.  Bills that propose to establish clean air, or clean water, limit the production of industry since much of the pollution of these mediums come from privately owned factories.  This reduction infringes on these industries’ individual economic prosperity.  For example, Linn County in Oregon sacrificed, albeit not on their own accord, a drop of timber sales from $12.7 million in 1988 to $2.1 million in 1996 so that the habitat of old growth forest could be saved to ensure the health of the endangered Spotted Owl.[10]

Even when environmental legislation is successfully passed, governmental subsidies are issued often times to combat the associated adverse economic impacts of the environmental legislation.  In the case of the Spotted Owl, the government compensated Linn County $5.3 million for the economic losses of its timber sales.[11] Thus, the American political system, while protecting the endangered Spotted Owl, also helps to acknowledge the value of the loss of individual economic prosperity through financial compensation. 


Dams Make Cents

These liberal values are a major source of political power for the existence of the Snake River dams. Senator Slade Gorton from Washington, a major opponent to the removal of the Snake River dams has cited expenses to citizens of the Pacific Northwest if the dams were removed as a justification for the dams to remain standing.  “Removing the Snake River dams would be an unmitigated disaster and an economic nightmare costing the Pacific Northwest more than $299 million a year.”[12]  In a speech to the Senate, Gordon quoted an Army Corps of Engineers Study which said that the dams would cost $251 million for the region’s power supply, $9 million a year from lost irrigated farmland, and $40 million in additional transportation costs, among other costs.[13]  Gordon continued his liberal rhetoric by citing families that are dependent upon their existence for their livelihood.  “So what do we get by removing the four Snake River dams?  Shattered lives, displaced families and communities… generations of family farmers penniless.”[14]

Those that favor the Snake River dams are also quick to point out the economic benefits the dams produce to the city of Lewiston.  When the dams were built upon the Snake River, their impediment of the flow of the river made for deeper water, and calmer currents.  Large barges that previously could not navigate the Snake’s rough rapids now could traffic its waters because of the dams. As a result, the city of Lewiston became a port town, a center for wheat and grain transport, giving Lewiston instant economic viability, gaining 779 jobs and $36.6 million to the Lewiston economy, which has a population a little larger that 50,000.[15] If the dams are removed, the activists remind us, those people whose jobs were created by the dams will now be unemployed.  The city, they warn, will be in economic ruin. 

At a “save our dams” rally in Kennewick, Washington this last fall, the chief rhetoric justifying the existence of the dams was economics.  At this rally, the participants were reminding those present that the Snake River dams are a huge producer of electricity, producing a combined 1,200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power a city the size of Seattle.[16]  These activists also warned of the sheer costs of dam removal, citing an Army Corps’ prediction exceeding $1 billion to remove the earthen portion of the dams.[17] 

This type of anti-dam-removal rhetoric follows very closely the tenants of liberalism.  All of the above statistics which promote benefits of the dams, are attempts to convey to the American people not only the sheer cost of a breaching endeavor, but to demonstrate what a financial windfall these dams are to the American people. Those that support the dams are not necessarily unsympathetic to the declining Salmon populations. These people simply are unwilling to give up the economic benefits that dams give to people to save a fish. Gordon and his political allies are placing the individual economic prosperity of those who rely on the dams above the communal good of society as a whole: the restoration of a wild river and saving the salmon populations.   


Liberalism and Environmentalism: mutually exclusive?

From our discussion of Cahn, and our example of liberalism as a tool for political power towards the dams, it seems that the tenants of liberalism and environmentalism are mutually exclusive. On the one hand, individual economic activity does hamper environmental legislation, and more importantly, gives political clout to the dams.  Yet environmental groups that are trying to gain support for the breaching of these dams are actually using political tactics that are very much in line with liberal values. These groups are attempting to exploit the economic inefficiencies of the dams so as to capitalize on an American political system historically sympathetic to economic efficiencies.   

An example of this type of rhetoric seeking to gain support for the breaching the Snake River is an article by Robert Devine, which outlines the economic problems associated with dams. In this article, Devine shows that the barge companies utilizing the Snake River are a very clear example of how the Snake River dams are actually economically inefficient. When a barge pulls into a lock of a dam, it takes approximately 43 million gallons to fill the lock.  It costs $700 dollars every time a barge passes through each dam, the cost of supplying electricity to an average house for a year.  Yet, barge operators pay none of the dams’ operation-and-maintenance costs, and until 1981 made no contributions to construction costs either.  Nationwide, the Army Corps of Engineers budgeted $786 million in fiscal year 1995 for inland waterways.[18] Taxpayers paid $700 million of that money, leaving the remainder of the $86 million to be paid by rich barge corporations: 80% of the barges that travel the inland waterways, are owned by twenty corporations whose combined revenue exceeded over $160 billion in 1995.[19] In the Snake River, the Dams cost taxpayers about $350 million. The only thing that makes barge traffic cheap, is the taxpayer paying for its existence. 

Another example of this style of rhetoric was an attack on the inefficiencies of the benefits the farming industry receives from these dams.  The subsidization that farmers receive for irrigation purposes that get water from the Snake River is $11.2 million a year. This money is shared by 13 corporate agri-businesses each earning on average $1.9 million.[20]

These statistics do more than serve as examples of how the environmental movement is using liberalism to combat the liberal power of the dams. Those that are pro-dam-removal, have used liberalism to expose that the majority of the benefits derived from the dams are received by an elite few: large multi-million dollar barge corporations, farmers, hydro-power companies and other businesses, while the individual taxpayer’s individual economic self-interests are neglected.  While it is true that all citizens within the local region owe their inexpensive electricity to the Snake River dams exposing not only the economic inefficiencies of the dams, but the elitism of those that the dams benefit, helping to galvanize additional political support for the breaching cause. By making people aware that their tax-dollar is being spent to the betterment of a small population, it increases the awareness, that though the dams are in the best economic interests of these elite corporations, they are not in line with the liberal values of the common citizen. Not only have the dams have allowed for great profit among the wealthy barge and farming companies at the expense of declining Salmon populations, these profits are in direct violation with the individual economic interest of the taxpaying majority.

A third example of rhetoric that seeks to strengthen the breaching cause, uses a slightly more intangible form of economic speech. Amid a major study by the Army Corps of Engineers on whether or not to breach the four dams, economists for the Corps are adding a factor known as “existence value” to their list of the costs and benefits of the proposal.[21]  Aside from calculating the effects that breaching would have on the jobs, electricity rates and shipping rates and other economic externalities, the government is now proposing to assign a dollar value to America’s knowledge that a piece of their wilderness might be regained.  According to Dennis Wagner, the Corps official overseeing the analysis, “It’s an indication that there are certainly folks out there who are willing to pay for the existence of something wild and scenic.”[22] 

Because this concept is somewhat arbitrarily determined, there are those who are skeptical of its legitimacy.  According to Tom Stevens, a professor of resource economics at the University of Massachusetts, there is not a single agreed upon definition of existence value, and thus, there are many different way to calculate it.  Jerry Hausman, an economics professor at MIT sees much room for error within such a study.  Because the only way to calculate existence value is to ask people what they would be willing to pay, Hausman sees upwardly biased responses because “when somebody calls you on the phone to ask, it’s not real money.”[23]

            Yet, though controversial, this concept has gained legitimacy.  According to Alan Randall, Chairman of the department of agriculture, environmental and development  economics at Ohio State University,  “the idea that you’d be willing to pay for some state of the world to exist, as you would pay for a commodity or a contract for services, is not at all crazy, the controversy, really is mostly about measurability.”[24]   The concept, also known as contingent value, or passive-use value, has been increasingly cited in legal battles over issues like logging in the Alaskan wilderness or offshore drilling.  At the height of a legal fight with Exxon over the 1989 oil spill from the Exxon Valdez tanker, the state of Alaska commissioned a $3 million study of what Americans who said they would never be likely to visit Prince William Sound would pay to avoid a similar accident.  The result was on average $30 a person.[25] 

            Specifically for the Snake River Dams, existence values have been very high.  Proponents for the breaching of the dams have cited polls in the Seattle area that suggest that residents would be willing to pay a few extra dollars a month on their electricity bills in order to save the salmon runs, and subsequently remove the dams.[26] Some economists at the Army Corps of Engineers have calculated that breaching the four Snake River dams and successfully restoring the salmon is an idea for which Americans would be willing to pay as much as $1 billion.[27]   

Though existence value does have some inherent flaws in terms of its calculations, the large dollar value placed upon the existence of a Snake River without the impediment of dams, is very important and meaningful. Along with the above other two examples, the inclusion of the existence value within the Snake River dam debate is a great victory for those who favor breaching them since it is consistent with American liberal values, yet seeks to achieve a common good. Since the idea of the Snake River without dams is a hypothetical common good, it has little viability in a society geared towards concrete economic values.  With existence value, American citizens now are placing a monetary amount, albeit hypothetical in its own right, upon the existence of a wild and scenic Snake River.  This then becomes a liberal vehicle for achieving an environmental common good normally only achievable through a civic republican form of government.  What citizens are telling the powers that be, is that not only do they reject the dams as economic providers, but they are willing to pay for their removal. Thus, a justification for the dam’s existence: economic viability through the displacement of benefits to all citizens, now becomes a moot point since citizens are submitting that a wild and free Snake River is more congruent with their individual economic interests than a Snake River that is dammed.

This idea of existence value also enables the Snake River debate to transform itself from a local issue, to a national one. “If a guy in Debuque thinks that this issue is important, that shows that this is a national issue,” said Chris Zimmer, a spokesman for Save Our Wild Salmon, a Seattle based environmental group.  This suggests that even those who have never seen the Snake River, or who may never see it, are concerned with the issue.  “This is a quality of life issue for people.  It’s important to their well-being that they know we still have wild places.” 


The Political Power of Symbols

A very powerful tool to galvanize political support for a cause is through the use of a symbol. One way that those who want the dams to remain standing are attempting to make their cause more politically powerful, involves looking at dams not as economic tools of production, but as symbols of political power. To see how dams can be thought of as political symbols, we use Murry Edelman’s The Symbolic Use of Politics.  For Edelman, “Every symbol stands for something other than itself, and it evokes an attitude, a set of impressions.”[28] Specifically though, there are two types of symbols for Edelman: referential symbols and condensational symbols.  An example of the former is a stoplight, for it refers to an action that one must perform. Though referential symbols play an important role within our society, it is the condensation symbols that are of particular importance. The primary reason for their importance is not only because they, like the referential symbols, represent something that they are not, but also because they portray intangible things such as patriotism, honor, history, and emotions.

Condensational symbols evoke the emotions associated with a situation.  They condense into one symbolic event, sign, or act patriotic pride, anxieties, remembrances of past glories or humiliations, promises of future greatness.[29]


For example, the bald eagle in Canada, by itself, is a bird of prey, having no more meaning to a Canadian than a pigeon.  Yet, to an American, this eagle represents our nation, freedom, history, patriotic pride and majesty. The bald eagle is an example of a condensation of symbol.   It is the emotions which are evoked from a condensational symbol that makes them powerful political tools.

The reason why these condensational symbols are powerful political tools is because of the human capacity to experience emotions and feelings.  Humans do not make decisions based solely upon rational thought, but rather make decisions with emotions in mind.  Similarly, people do not make political decisions based solely upon the facts or logic of the situation, but allow, albeit sometimes unconsciously, emotions to dictate their political decisions. “Rationality implies that political actions and evaluations are the product of consistent preferences. Irrationality, on the other hand, presupposes that political actions and reactions are based on emotional impulses and blind impulses that defy logic. Elements of both are found in politics.”[30] Condensational symbols are important because they are able to touch us emotionally, and often times, sway the emotional sensibilities of the individual to think a certain way about a political issue. 


Unifying a Heterogeneous Group

Condensational symbols become important when dealing with issues on a national level. With a country as large as the United States, people come from a wide variety of backgrounds, which foster many different political and social values. Factions within our national body politic occur because of this diversity of political tastes. The creators of our government knew factions to be an inescapable part of any government.  

The latent causes of factions are…sown in the nature of man.  It is vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them subservient to the public good.  The inference to which we are brought is, that the causes of factions cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the manner of controlling its effects.[31]


Madison argues that federalism is similar to liberalism in that it is based on the assumption that humans are inherently selfish, and will think of their own interests above the interests of others. Thus, the solution to dealing with the problem of factions was not to invent a system which attempts to eliminate factions, but rather to use the existence of the factions to create a common good. “Individuals would pursue their private ends, and the structure of government would balance those pursuits so cleverly that the highest good would emerge without anyone having bothered to will its existence.”[32] Yet, with a government that recognizes the inevitability of factions, it can be difficult to pass a piece of legislation that appeals to the individual interests of an entire country filled with people of very diverse backgrounds.

If these people of different backgrounds can experience similar emotions in regards to a political cause, then the variations of differing perspectives among these factions can be united. Condensation symbols can form this type of emotional connection among a wide variety of people, thereby uniting a nation behind a political issue or cause.  It is important therefore, for these symbols to be effective, to imbue similar emotions among different people.  This is not easy since political symbols can often times evoke different feelings and ideals among different people.  For example, a gun to those that perhaps enjoy hunting can be a symbol of the freedom associated with the American right to bear arms.  For another, who’s close friend or relative was killed by a gunshot, a gun can represent a killing machine too easily accessible to the American public. For symbols to be effective at uniting people behind one cause, a symbol must be chosen that stems from experiences common among many citizens.


The Snake River dams: more than just concrete

It is the Snake River dams as condensational symbols, which help to perpetuate their existence.  On the surface, a dam is very literally, a concrete objects used to impede rivers for the production of electricity, for the irrigation of farming crops and among other things, for the trafficking of goods.  We have seen that these in their own right are political justifications for the existence of the dams. Yet, despite these very positive and tangible benefits, there is a deeper meaning why support for dams has been so strong.  Dams have an emotional element for many people.  They are symbolic of man’s domination over nature, emblems of the technological capabilities of our great nation.

These emotions that are inferred from the dams have a historical context which helps to make them powerful. With many dams being built in American during the Great Depression, and subsequently under New Deal politics, the political setting of the times allowed for the dams to become powerful symbols.

            Symbolic achievements mattered terribly in the thirties, and the federal dams going up on the western rivers were the reigning symbols of the era.  In a slip of time, the mantle of achievement passed from private enterprise to public works.  The dams announced that America could still do remarkable things; they also said that the country would never be the same.[33]   


Dams at this time were symbolic of their ability to employ thousands and help restore people’s faith in the strength of America, since these dams were such large endeavors and engineering marvels. In a time of great economic disarray, with nearly one third of the work force unemployed,[34] the dams gave Americans a symbol of pride for their country.    Today, these dams now stand as monuments for those that struggled to build them and bring affordable electricity, water for farming, and other commodities.  They are emblems of man’s ability to tame nature and use her to satisfy our own economic needs.

Though the political atmosphere has changed since the Great Depression, the emotions inferred from dams have not. The dams of today still imbue these emotions. When visiting a dam, feelings of awe and amazement can often occur, since the sheer size and mechanization of many dams are of mammoth proportions. William Dietrich, elaborates on the emotional power of the dams.

Chief Joseph [Dam] was grander than any cathedral I had ever seen, a place that throbbed to the churn of turbines blades and hummed to the buzz of electricity.  It also seemed utterly empty of people.  Here was something heroic in scale, coldly imposing in its robotic grandeur, as tireless as running water. Who could help but be impressed?”[35]


To Dietrich and many others, dams are testimony to the ingenuity of our society.  Their existence is forever a reminder of man’s power to change, control, and exploit his surroundings. They are emblems that man can be equally as powerful as nature. 

These emotions that are inferred from the dams help to give the dams political power.  Because of the emotions inferred from the dams as condensational symbols, their popularity becomes a result not only of the economic commodities they bring to the people, but of the their ability to unify a people behind their cause through the feeling of common emotions.  Visiting centers at dams speaking of their storied past, American flags being flown from the dams, as well as their sheer size all help to imbue similar emotions to a variety of people.  With this diverse group of people feeling the same sense of pride and patriotism from the dams, their political support for the dams will result.  Consequently, to have them removed would seem foolish, since these people associate so many good tangible and intangible things with the dams -tearing them down would be a destruction not only of our past achievements, but also a dismissal of the patriotic pride we associate with the dams. 

The Pacific Northwest salmon: not just fish

Conversely, symbols can be used to perpetuate the breaching cause. Just as the dams have been used as condensational symbols so as to champion their own existence, environmentalists have recently used the notion of condensational symbols to gain political support for the cause of the removal of the Snake River dams. By choosing a symbol that can imbue emotions that support emotions against the dams, environmentalists are attempting to galvanize a national political support. 

Inherent to an attempt to make the Snake River dams of national significance is the problem that the Snake River dams pose environmental threats only to the Pacific Northwest.  Whether the Snake River dams are in place, or whether they are removed, has very little tangible bearing on the lives of a person from Delaware or New York. Thus, it is the challenge of the political movement in favor of breaching the dams to create an emotional connection among people from a wide variety of backgrounds and locations, even those that perhaps have never been to see the Snake River or the Pacific Northwest, to support the breaching. 

Such a vehicle is the salmon. The salmon in the Snake River Dam debate can galvanize a movement around the nation to support breaching of the dams by building on people’s emotional attachment to the fish.  Though the health of the salmon does have an effect upon the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest, the ramifications of their demise are much greater.  To the people of the Northwest, declining salmon populations do not simply mean a reduction in the fishing industry. Albeit the declining fishing industry is important in its own right, the salmon is emblematic of the Pacific Northwest as a region.  It is symbolic for a way of life, for a culture all its own, as well as emblematic of the natural environment for which the northwest is know: green forests, tall mountains, clear free flowing streams, and abundant fish. If the salmon should become extinct, the Northwest would lose an important symbol, and lose some of its own identity. 

To the environmentalists attempting to achieve political support for the breaching of the dams, these emotions associated with the salmon are particularly important.  Not only do these emotions translate into political support for the breaching cause within the Northwest, since most within this area have the above mentioned emotions associated with salmon, but outside of the Northwest as well.  Even those who have not been to the Northwest, can associate Pacific salmon with the culture and region of the Northwest. By using the salmon as a symbol, a person in Maine or in Delaware can relate to the environmental damages the dams have caused without ever having visited southeastern Washington since the salmon is such a visible and recognizable symbol. 

Because of the emotional importance that the salmon imbues, environmental organizations are attempting to exploit the power of salmon as a condensational symbol through their political campaign to get the dams breached.  Various environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, as well as corporate sponsors such as Patagonia, have joined forces to gather funds to pay for political advertisements asking for support for the breaching of the Snake River dams.  These advertisements have been in newspapers, which are syndicated nationally.  For example, one such full page advertisement has been featured in New York Times on several occasions, most recently on February 20, 2000.  The structure of these advertisements does, not surprisingly, place a large picture of a salmon in the top center of the page, attempting to capitalize on the emotions people infer from salmon.  The words “Give a Dam” are in bold letters, with a sub-title “well actually four” below.  The advertisement urges people to contact President Clinton and tell him the remove the dams.

What is most interesting about this advertisement is the inclusion of a picture of each one of the Snake River dams.  It would seem from our above discussion, that the inclusion of pictures of these dams would not be in the best interest of environmental organizations wanting to achieve national support for breaching of the dams, since the dams themselves are symbols of their own and help to perpetuate their own existence.  Yet, their inclusion is an important one for the environmentalists.  By associating the dams with the demise of the salmon, environmentalists turn the condensational power of the dams against it.  For no longer do the dams represent pride, human ingenuity, and man’s domination over nature, but instead represent our destruction of our natural surroundings for greed, power and economic prosperity.  This not only heightens the political power of those wanting the dams to be breached, but also diminishes the power of those that want the dams to remain.  Thus, the environmentalists are fighting fire with fire, turning the condensational symbolic power of the dams against those that want them to remain.


Conclusion: a review

Environmentalists are attempting to dismantle a very powerful political edifice.  For much of the twentieth century, dams within our country have been great tools of economic prosperity.  Dams have given Americans inexpensive electricity, water to farmers, and inexpensive means for trade trafficking, as well helping to stimulate the economies of cities.  These economic benefits follow very closely within the framework of our political system.  Founded on the principle of liberalism which allows for individual economic prosperity to be of utmost importance, the dams have gained much support, since they have helped bring individual economic prosperity and as a result, increased the validity of the national economy. 

Because of their economic success, the dams have come to symbolize financial prosperity, stimulating patriot pride since America tamed the wild rivers, and exploited nature to satisfy his own needs.  This symbolism made the dams become even more powerful politically, since the emotional connection people now had with dams were so positive.  Dams were now seen as great structures emblematic of our ingenuity as a society. Coupled by the their economic benefits, the political edifice of the dams was powerful. 

Yet, the existence of the dams does have drawbacks.  Because they impede the flow of rivers, they also impede the passage of anadromous fish, who travel upstream to spawn.  Though fish ladders, pipelines and other devices were built to help allow fish to travel through dams, the fish populations have still declined, alluding to these devices as symbolic gestures to keep the dams standing.  Yet, despite many populations of fish species becoming dangerously low, the dams are still standing, supported by their powerful political popularity.  

Yet, environmentalists became savvy.  They realized that much of the political tools that helped to perpetuate the dams existence could actually be used against them, and even help to create a movement that would destroy them.  Using the notion of liberalism, environmentalists are beginning to show how the dams in fact are not the economic miracles they appeared to be.  In fact, these dams are economically inefficient.  Because the large federal subsidizations, barging corporations with very deep pockets travel through these rivers virtually for free.  The water that the farmers used to water crops is subsidized so heavily, that very few bothered to line their irrigation ditches, meaning thousands of gallons of water is being wasted. 

Environmentalists are also using the notion symbols, this time to gain support for the dams’ destruction. Those that want the dams to be breached found a powerful symbol to galvanize a political movement in their favor: the salmon.  Because the salmon represent the Northwest region as a whole, including its culture, people and environment, if the salmon were to become extinct, this region would lose a portion of its identity.  Thus, it was their goal, to get those within the northwest, as well as those around the nation, to feel sympathy towards the fish and what it represented, and support the breaching cause.

What now: who will win?

Though this analysis has outlined the political forces at work in the Snake River dam debate, we still do not have an answer to the question posed on page three: are the proponents to the breaching of the dams up to the challenge? From our analysis, it seems that the dams will fall if, firstly, the salmon as a condensational symbol can galvanize enough political support to overcome the condensational symbolic power of the dams. Secondly, adhering to the liberal values of our society, the benefits of dam removal must out-weigh the associated costs. Yet, citing these two political forces as the primary factors in deciding the outcome of the breaching campaign does need a caveat. While these two political forces are important and can decide the fate of the dams, other external forces play a role in this debate as well. Yet, citing these two political forces as the primary factors in deciding the outcome of the breaching campaign does need a caveat. While these two political forces are important and can decide the fate of the dams, other external forces play a role in this debate as well. Yet, many of these external forces bring clear questions with unclear answers to the table, alluding to the complexity of this issue. For example, the role of science will play a major role in this debate.  Some biologists see dam removal as the main ingredient to replenishing the salmon populations. Environmentalists are using this role of science to perpetuate their political power. But other biologists see dam removal as an uncertain solution to saving the salmon, strengthening the power of the dams. Though both sides have substantiated their positions with scientific “facts,” saying who is right is another matter. Another example is the role of our economy. With our current bullish economy and the strength of the “.com” companies, natural resource exploitation is relatively less important to our economic development than it was at the political prime of the dams, the 1930’s.  With the importance of natural resource exploitation reduced in a bullish economy, the commodities that the dams create are comparatively less important.  Yet even with our current economic prosperity, it is uncertain whether the jobs that the dams provide will be able to be supplemented by other industries?  In the town of Lewiston for example, over 4,000 people owe their livelihood to the Snake River dams.  Will they find other work if the dams go under? The environmentalists insist other jobs will materialize, those that support the dams do not.  Who is right?

Though the answers to these questions are unclear, finding answers could be the key to the success of the environmentalist’ cause. Since the dams are currently standing, their existence is a clear representation of the status quo.  Using the analogy of a court case, those that support the dams are the defense team. They have a distinct advantage in the debate, since they need only poke holes in the environmentalist' argument to create “reasonable doubt” and for their side to “win.” Environmentalists however, must find ways to answer these above-mentioned questions, to eliminate any uncertainties about this debate. While this may seem like a system that supports the existence of the dams, if those that support the breaching of the dams can answer the seemingly unanswerable questions of science, economics, and other uncertainties of this complex debate, the symbol of the salmon may just be powerful enough to convince the liberal minded American body politic to “Give a dam…well actually four.”




[1] McCully, Patrick. Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams. New Jersey: Zed Books,


[2] United States Army Corps of Engineers. Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility

Study. 1997.


[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.


[7] Cahn, Matthew. Environmental Deceptions, New York: State University of New York Press. 1995

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Schaleger, Rob. “The Northern Spotted Owl Impacts Sweet-Home, Oregon. “ See


[11] Ibid.

[12] Hughes, John. “Report: Snake dam breaching could work” The Tacoma News Tribune. October 2, 1999

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Barnett, Jim. “Winners of a Free-run River.” The Oregonian. July 25, 1999.

[16] Wiley, John K. “Politicians vow to stave off proposals to breach northwest dams.” The Tacoma News

Tribune. February 19, 1999.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Devine, Robert. “The Trouble with Dams.” The Atlantic Monthly. August 1995.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Columbia Snake River Campaign.  “Facts on the Lower Snake River dams.”  See


[21] Verhovek, Sam Howe.“‘Existence value’ muddies river debate.” The Tacoma News Tribune. October 24,



[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.


[25] Ibid.


[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Edelman,Murry. The Symbolic Uses of Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Elder and Cobb. The Political Uses of Symbols.  New York: Longman Inc, 1983.


[31] Kemmis, Daniel. Community and the Politics of Place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.



[32] Ibid.

[33] Reiser, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York: Penguin

Books, 1993.

[34] Pivan, Frances Fox, and Richard Cloward. Regulating the Poor: The Function of Public Welfare. New

York: Vintage Books, 1993.

[35] Dietrich, William. Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995..