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Balancing energy and the environment

The High Ross Dam project was a controversial initiative in the Skagit Valley
Decco Walton unloads Skagit Valley timber logs into the Fraser River at the Bristol Island log dump in Hope.

Kimberly Campbell and Inge Wilson


The entrance to the Skagit Valley Provincial Park is located 37 kilometres from Hope via Silver Skagit Road.

This unique, flat-bottomed valley features an ecological transition zone between coastal and interior forest types. It is a valuable local tourism asset and popular outdoor recreation destination with campgrounds, hiking/horseback trails and excellent fly fishing. For about half of the 20th century this valley was also earmarked for flooding.

In 1911, the “Father of City Light,” superintendent of Seattle City Light, J.D. Ross, envisioned building three dams along the Skagit River in Washington state to power the fast growing Seattle area. The Gorge Dam was started in 1919, the Diablo Dam began in 1927 and about 10 years later construction began on Ruby Dam, later known as the Ross Dam. This dam was to be constructed in phases, with each raising the level of the dam and increasing the size of the reservoir behind it.

In September 1939, the world was swept up into the Second World War and even though the United States did not get involved in fighting until after the bombing of Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7, 1941, Washington state received hundreds of war contracts starting in the  late 1930s. Among the largest of the new employers were Boeing’s Seattle and Renton plants. Boeing produced more than 8,200 planes for the war effort and Washington ship yards constructed hundreds of vessels. These wartime industries created an enormous demand for new workers and electricity as many plants worked around the clock. The population of the Seattle area exploded and newly built neighbourhoods created an even higher demand for power.

So in May 1941, Seattle City Light applied to the International Joint Commission (IJC) - a six member Canada-U.S. panel established to manage boundary water disputes – to embark upon phase four of the Ross Dam. Phase three, already in the works, would flood an area that extended over the Canadian border by a mile and a half but phase four would raise the dam a further 36 metres (120 feet), extending flooding a further eight miles into British Columbia. The request to raise the dam to this final height would flood 2,023 hectares (5,000 acres) of Canadian wilderness. This application reviewed by the IJC after a poorly advertised two-hour hearing was held in Seattle on Sept. 12, 1941. On Jan. 27, 1942 the High Ross proposal was given the green light.

Formal approval, however, did not mean immediate construction. One of the primary challenges with construction was what to do with all the trees that stood in the flood basin on both sides of the border – over 300 million board feet of merchantable timber plus an untold volume of brush would need to be cleared to prevent debris from clogging up the power intakes. So construction of the Silver Skagit Road from Hope was undertaken by Silver Skagit Logging to provide access to the area by 1948. Decco Walton then became responsible for the enormous job of logging the region. All logs were transported into Hope on oversized trucks via the new road, to the International Booming Grounds at Bristol Island, and then taken down the Fraser River by tugs pulling large log booms. The U.S. logs were then transported back to the U.S. since there were no roads into the American side. This was an economic boom for Hope and was also the genesis of today’s well-known diversified corporation of Rivtow.

During the 1950s and 1960s environmentalists fought hard to save the valley. In 1969, the Run Out Skagit Spoilers (R.O.S.S.) Committee was formed to advocate for the preservation of the valley. Several Hope residents were actively involved with R.O.S.S., including Frances Thoma, and Nora and Lindsay Thacker.

On Dec. 6, 1973, the B.C. government responded to years of protest by establishing the 32,508 hectare Skagit Valley Recreation Area. This did not protect the area from flooding, logging and mining, but did raise the profile of the issue and suggested the public was increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of the plan.

Throughout the early 1980s the controversy surrounding the High Ross Dam became increasingly heated. Numerous provincial and federal politicians announced their opposition to the project and many citizens, both Canadian and American, also spoke out against it. In 1981, the R.O.S.S. Committee published A Citizen’s Guide to the Skagit Valley, a book detailing the environmental value and recreational potential of the Skagit.

An agreement between the provincial government and Seattle City Light was finally announced on April 6, 1983. Two weeks later a bold headline in The Hope Standard announced “Skagit saved by ‘win-win’ treaty.” The treaty meant that no further acreage would be flooded, B.C. would receive $21 million US annually for 35 years to provide power to Seattle, and Seattle would provide $4 million of a $5-million environmental endowment fund to enhance the Skagit Valley. It was not until 1997, however, that the Skagit Valley was finally preserved as a “Class A” provincial park prohibiting logging and mining activities from the area.

Today, the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission (SEEC) still manages the endowment fund set out in the 1983 treaty. The commission, made up of four American and four Canadian representatives, partners with various groups to fulfill their mandate. Current members of SEEC that have Hope connections are Lex Bennett and Peter Kennedy. One of the groups that SEEC partners with is the Hope Mountain Centre for Outdoor Learning, which receives partial funding for their local history and environmental programs from the Skagit endowment fund.

The increasing energy demands of the 20th century meant the development of many new hydro-electric projects, flooding thousands of acres of wilderness to provide the electricity to power homes and new industries. In the case of the Skagit Valley, ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to protest the destruction of a unique ecosystem and stopped the construction of the High Ross Dam. Other projects went ahead, including the Wahleach Power Project which will be featured in next week’s Heritage Week story.