A Little Fish Offers a Perceptive Window on the World

snaildarterZygmunt J. B. Plater—

It has been called The Most Extreme Environmental Case Ever, the two-inch long “snail darter” endangered fish “mis-used” by radical environmentalists to block completion of “a huge hydroelectric dam” in Tennessee. The snail darter is still today referenced as an example of extreme leftist environmentalism barring important social progress. This past summer, Tea Party Rep. Louis Gohmert used the snail darter to disparage a civil rights bill amendment that he perceived to be designed protect environmental interests; Fox’s Sean Hannity referred to the darter’s defenders as “fringe lunatics.” [Fox News, Hannity’s America, 9:00 PM EST, December 7, 2008]

In the six years my students and I spent fighting the case, however, the story came across in a very different light. My recently published record of the experience, The Snail Darter and the Dam, reveals that the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Tellico Dam, the last of 69 dams in the region, was relatively small with no electric generators, a “pork” project justified by the TVA as a recreational lake surrounded by 40 square miles of private farmlands condemned for resale by the Boeing Corporation.

Hardly rabid environmentalists, the dam project’s opponents were mainly displaced farmers and fishermen who brought the little fish into the Tellico case as their only means to slow down the project and draw attention to its economic flaws, to protect their land and save the river. The snail darter, extinguished throughout the rest of the river system dams, survived in the Little Tennessee River as a vivid indicator of human, as well as ecological, resources at risk—a “canary in the coal mine.”


The little fish from Tennessee offers the reader a small window onto a very much wider national landscape, as my students and I doggedly carry our quixotic case through scientific scrutiny and all the corridors of power in American governance—the media, multiple federal agencies, two White Houses, three Congresses, courtrooms up through a dramatic success in the U.S. Supreme Court, and finally unanimous economic vindication in the God Committee, the first-ever governmental inquisition with the power of extinction. We did everything right, creating a dramatic demonstration how Good Ecology Is Good Economics. That we ultimately lost in a late-night congressional pork over-ride of their successful legal and economic verdicts provides a final piquant and perceptive twist for our understanding of current troublesome patterns of government.

The Snail Darter and the Dam is an instructive civic saga with enough political twists and turns to intrigue and infuriate just about anyone.

It’s much more than a little fish.

Zygmunt J. B.  Plater is professor of law and director of the Land & Environmental Law Program at Boston College Law School. He chaired the State of Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s Legal Research Task Force, is lead author of an environmental law casebook, and has participated in numerous citizen environmental initiatives. He lives in Newton Highlands, MA.

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