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Dammed If You Do, Dammed If You Don't

by Chris Melville
Idaho Mountain Express, October 2, 2019

Documentary exposes ecological fragility

Adult counts of wild Chinook and Steelhead returning to Idaho (source: Idaho Fish & Game) "Dammed to Extinction": Despite the titular pun, the subject of the new nature documentary -- to be screened at The Community Library on Thursday, Oct. 3 -- is no laughing matter.

Writer Steve Hawley and filmmaker Mike Peterson met each other because their young daughters attended the same preschool. Conversation snippets at drop-off and pick-up illuminated that the pair had more in common: a shared concern for the rapidly diminishing Chinook salmon populations and the repercussions on the delicate Pacific ecosystem.

"Dammed to Extinction" sees the pair join up with renowned cetaceologist Ken Balcomb, who has dedicated four decades to the study of orcas. These iconic animals are teetering toward extirpation in Puget Sound because the salmon -- a core dietary element for them -- are no longer breeding as they once did.

Balcomb identifies four dams on the lower Snake River, 500 miles from the coast, that he contends eliminate millions of salmon a year.

"Dammed to Extinction" takes a look at ecology, conservation and economics to make a powerful argument in favor of removing the dams. Citing both projected improvements in salmon population and a relatively miniscule effect on energy production and dependent economies, the film's thesis suggests a clear and obvious solution to its central problem.

"The film mentions an estimate generated by a multiagency study conducted over a period of several years that if one were to remove the four dams on the Snake River, salmon production would multiply by 2.5 to four times its current rate," Peterson said.

"We're especially excited to show the film in your neck of the woods. The headwaters near Ketchum are integral to several Idaho rivers," Peterson continued. "They used to be the breadbasket of the most productive salmon river system on earth. It's not that way now."

The Army Corps of Engineers installed the dams between 1961 and 1975. The reservoirs behind them allow grain to be shipped by barge from Lewiston, Idaho, to Portland, Ore., and the dams generate electricity. However, the Pacific Northwest now has a surplus of power, and the federal power is more expensive than market rates.

"The power company operating the dams is running into financial problems," Hawley said, suggesting that removing the dams would not accentuate these issues, but would solve a more severe problem. "The salmon population is abysmal. Orcas have a terrible lack of food, and they're suffering in the wild."

Peterson said he hopes the film will unite viewers to enact much-need change.

"We did this to bring awareness to the plight of salmon, and we're trying to bring people together to find a solution," he said.

According to these two conservationists, Ketchum is an idea place to attract new supporters.

"I always look forward to visiting the pro-salmon crowd in Ketchum," Hawley said. "More than most people, folks there seem to realize they live in a special place. They recognize how dams downstream have severely limited the production of salmon that began in the wilderness areas around Ketchum."

Ahead of the showing of "Dammed to Extinction," Hawley and Peterson will present a screening -- actually, the world premiere -- of a short film chronicling the 900-mile horseback pilgrimage of Kat Cannell, Katelyn Spradley and M.J. Wright.

Under the moniker "Ride for Redd," the trio set out last April from Astoria, Ore. With their six horses, they followed the Columbia, Snake and Salmon River drainages all the way to Stanley's Redfish Lake. Their trek follows the course that wild chinook and sockeye salmon traditionally brave all the way to their breeding grounds. En route, they pass each of the four dams on which Hawley and Peterson focus in "Dammed to Extinction."

The companion piece short film helps hammer home the objective of the longer documentary, bringing to light the harrowing plight of the Pacific Northwest's dwindling wild salmon populations.

Representatives of the "Ride for Redd" group will join Hawley and Peterson at the library on Thursday.

To learn more about Cannell, Spradley and Wright's journey, visit Learn more about "Dammed to Extinction" at

Visit for details about the free screening and presentation.

Chris Melville
Dammed If You Do, Dammed If You Don't
Idaho Mountain Express, October 2, 2019

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