Hells Canyon Is Preserved as a National Recreation Area

Private power companies pushed for the right to develop hydroelectric power on the Snake River in Hells Canyon, but they were opposed by environmental organizations supported by public officials who wanted to preserve the pristine area.

Summary of Event

At its highest point, the walls of Hells Canyon drop 8,043 feet to the Snake River below. A variety of climates are found along this one-and-one-half-mile vertical drop; from frozen tundra at the top of Seven Devil Peaks to dry, hot desert along the river shore. Within this varied habitat dwell nearly 350 species of animals, some of which are found nowhere else. Hells Canyon has been a refuge for animals and humans alike for many years. Hells Canyon National Recreation Area
Wilderness preservation
Environmental activism
[kw]Hells Canyon Is Preserved as a National Recreation Area (Dec. 31, 1975)
[kw]National Recreation Area, Hells Canyon Is Preserved as a (Dec. 31, 1975)
[kw]Recreation Area, Hells Canyon Is Preserved as a National (Dec. 31, 1975)
Hells Canyon National Recreation Area
Wilderness preservation
Environmental activism
[g]North America;Dec. 31, 1975: Hells Canyon Is Preserved as a National Recreation Area[02210]
[g]United States;Dec. 31, 1975: Hells Canyon Is Preserved as a National Recreation Area[02210]
[c]Environmental issues;Dec. 31, 1975: Hells Canyon Is Preserved as a National Recreation Area[02210]
Harvey, Floyd
Packwood, Bob
Mager, Russ
Ullman, Al

It is believed that humans first entered the canyon approximately fifteen thousand years ago. Although not much is known of these early inhabitants, they did leave behind petroglyphs, and ruins of their ancient shelters remain. Most of the two hundred significant archaeological sites have yet to be excavated. The Western Shoshone and Nez Perce tribes often competed for resources in the canyon’s depths. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first floated the Snake River on their journey to the Pacific Ocean in October, 1805. On their return voyage one year later, the party was forced to camp near the gorge. While in search of food supplies, several men came upon the rim of the canyon, which Lewis described in amazement in his personal log. The United States formally acquired the region by treaty with Great Britain in 1846.

Other men entered and explored the canyon. Some attempted to settle there but were driven out by the harsh conditions. Not until Thomas Edison’s invention of the household electric light in 1879 was there a reason for anyone to see Hells Canyon and the Snake River as valuable assets instead of major obstacles. On December 18, 1906, the Idaho-Oregon Power Company was granted a right of power site withdrawal at the Oxbow, the point at which Hells Canyon began formation nearly one million years ago. Completion of the powerhouse in 1913 was the first in a long line of hydroelectric improvements to be proposed over the next sixty years.

In the original struggle for improvement, Idaho Power, a company formed in 1915 from the scraps of failed companies including Idaho-Oregon, fought the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for rights along the Snake River. Idaho Power won, and on August 4, 1955, was granted the right to build three dams: the Brownlee, the Oxbow, and the Hells Canyon, all of which were completed. A year earlier, six utility companies had hired Ebasco Services to survey the Pacific Northwest to determine if any major dam sites remained undeveloped. By the time Ebasco had completed its survey, the six companies had been reduced to four, with Idaho Power dropping out and Mountain States Power merging with Pacific Power and Light. Avoiding laws restricting the formation of superutility companies, the group, called Northwest Pacific Power, hired a law firm to find a loophole large enough to allow the companies to formally combine. On April 13, 1954, the Pacific Northwest Power Company Pacific Northwest Power Company was officially formed under Oregon state law, becoming a major player in the fight for development of Hells Canyon.

Thirteen years after Pacific Northwest Power was formed, the company still had not gained the necessary government permits to begin constructing dams. In June, 1967, the company and its rival Washington Public Power Supply System were denied permission by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Federal Power Commission Federal Power Commission was told to investigate the concerns of canyon fisheries further and to consider the possibility of allowing no dam at all.

During the same year, environmentalists were organizing. Floyd Harvey, a jet boater on the Snake, already had been raising interest in Hells Canyon preservation for seven years. In Southeastern Idaho, Russ Mager, a professor at Idaho State College in Pocatello, was mobilizing a group of eastern and midwestern physicists stationed at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho Falls and other supporters from the Pocatello area. Mager’s group formed the Idaho Alpine Club Idaho Alpine Club in association with the Seattle-based Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs, hoping eventually to form a local Sierra Club. Sierra Club They contacted Brock Evans, Evans, Brock a lawyer and the director of the Sierra Club, who met with local environmentalists, including Harvey. Evans decided to take a trip to Hells Canyon to see what measures could be taken to preserve the area. One day later, eight members of the Idaho Alpine Club met and named their new group the Hells Canyon Preservation Council. Hells Canyon Preservation Council Later that year, Harvey hosted the group at his riverside Willow Bar camp for a weekend, during which it was decided that the Hells Canyon-Snake National River should be formed as a park that protected the environment but allowed sport hunting. Over the next five years, the council expanded across the state to include some two thousand members.

Meanwhile, the power companies had devised a surprising plan. Pacific Northwest Power and its former rival Washington Power Supply System agreed to merge applications and pursue a joint project. In this agreement, each company would pay for one-half of the production costs and would receive one-half of the power produced.

A race ensued. The environmentalists needed to pass a bill to stop development. The allied power companies needed to gain a license from the Federal Power Commission to construct a dam. The license hearings began on September 10, 1968, and two days later the Church-Jordan Moratorium Bill was introduced into the U.S. Senate. Senator Leonard Jordan Jordan, Leonard of Idaho, a former rancher in Hells Canyon, believed that the power companies were building the wrong dam for the wrong purposes. Senator Frank Church Church, Frank of Idaho, who had experience drafting moratorium bills, believed the ten-year moratorium for preservation would give enough time for conservationists to build a firm base. Preservationists successfully opposed the bill, agreeing that it would lead to the construction of the highly negotiated Nez Perce Dam by giving the power companies time to regroup.

In an attempt to frame a bill of its own, the power alliance petitioned for the support of the Department of the Interior, which would have saved the dam builders time and money. With the election of Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M. as president on November 5, 1968, the Department of the Interior was restaffed. The new administration disliked the partnership and in August, 1969, declared its opposition to the development of Hells Canyon.

On January 19, 1970, Brock Evans’s National River Bill was introduced into the House of Representatives by Pennsylvania congressman John P. Saylor Saylor, John P. with the support of Oregon senator Bob Packwood. Before the bill could be passed, however, the land had to be bought from four wealthy ranchers who owned most of Hells Canyon and the surrounding area. Contractors had divided some of the land into small tracts; before the U.S. Forest Service Forest Service, U.S. could raise enough money for the purchase, several of the tracts were sold, making acquisition more difficult. The Forest Service eventually paid each rancher approximately $1 million for the land.

Purchasing the land stopped further subdividing, but the National River Bill failed to pass Congress. During these years, Floyd Harvey lobbied for preservation support by taking senators, representatives, celebrities, and other environmentalists into the canyon to stay at his Willow Creek camp. A new bill written in September, 1972, by Pete Henault, Henault, Pete the Hells Canyon Preservation Council president from 1970 to 1972, was revised many times but also failed to pass. Senator Al Ullman, a onetime dam supporter who switched sides as the preservation movement gained public support, introduced the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Bill, which finally passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 342 to 53 on November 18, 1975. The bill set aside 652,468 acres as the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, 213,993 of which were designated Hells Canyon Wilderness. Thirty-one and one-half miles of the Snake were designated as wild river, and scenic river status was granted to another thirty-six miles. On December 31, Hells Canyon National Recreation Area was signed into law by President Gerald R. Ford. Ford, Gerald R. Seven months later, at Hat Point on the Oregon rim, the area was officially dedicated.


Following the establishment of Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, tourism steadily grew. Within two decades, tens of thousands of tourists were visiting the canyon annually to hunt, fish, raft, or hike. The biggest attraction, however, was jet boating. Jet boats were ideal for the shallow Snake River because they can travel up to sixty miles per hour in water only four inches deep. The jet boat industry, based in Lewiston, Idaho, raised millions of dollars annually from an estimated twenty thousand tourists. As the Forest Service prepared for these customers, a new debate developed over the future of Hells Canyon.

The debates that emerged in the 1980’s raged among preservationists who earlier had cooperated to preserve Hells Canyon. Rafters and floaters took sides against jet boaters. Unrestricted access for jet boaters was allowed along the thirty-one miles of the “wild” Snake River, while rafters had to obtain permits. Floaters complained that the jet boats were too loud and produced huge wakes and noxious fumes. The jet boaters argued that jet boats provide scenic opportunities for those unable to raft down rapids.

In 1984, the Forest Service attempted to restrict jet boating under provisions of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Bill, but restrictions were overruled by the Reagan administration. In 1988, the National Park System Plan recommended converting Hells Canyon to a national park, but this was fiercely opposed by jet boaters, who would then have been confined to certain areas of the river. The Forest Service suggested restricting jet boaters and floaters to a twenty-seven-mile stretch of the Snake River on alternating weeks. Another argument against the plan suggested that tourists attracted by a national park would overwhelm and ultimately destroy the wilderness of the canyon. As tensions grew, the fight for limitations became more dangerous. Ric Bailey, a former logger and a member of the Forest Service’s elite smoke-jumper firefighting teams, who since the mid-1980’s had led the push for restrictions on logging, grazing, and jet boating, received death threats and voodoo dolls covered by pins and soaked in red dye. Gunplay also became a factor along the river. Jet boaters were accused of attracting bats at night with spotlights, then shooting them out of the sky. The Forest Service also had to intervene when jet boaters and floaters, who camped adjacently, fired toward one another.

There also were disputes over logging and grazing in the canyon. During some years, 95 percent of the Forest Service’s Hells Canyon budget was spent on logging and grazing projects instead of on trails, campgrounds, or other recreational development. Herders’ sheep introduced a new bacteria that killed bighorn sheep once native to the area. Cows and sheep grazed along the river, polluting it with waste and trampling the grass. In the first twenty years after Hells Canyon became a National Recreation Area, the Forest Service logged more than 160 million board feet of timber from the rim’s ponderosa pine forests and built some 150 miles of logging roads. The Forest Service was criticized for undermining the Hells Canyon National Recreation Act, which states that the area should be managed so as to “assure that the natural beauty, and historic and archaeological values of the Hells Canyon Area and the . . . Snake River . . . are preserved for this and future generations.” Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee chairman Samuel Penney testified that ancient Native American petroglyphs were vandalized only after the Forest Service had provided easy access to them. Disputes over management of resources in the area continued to spark controversy into the early twenty-first century. Hells Canyon National Recreation Area
Wilderness preservation
Environmental activism

Further Reading

  • Ashworth, William. Hells Canyon: The Deepest Gorge on Earth. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1977. A detailed history of Hells Canyon, from its formation to its eventual preservation in 1975. Ashworth’s style makes even tedious political processes seem exciting. The definitive source.
  • Brooks, Karl Boyd. Public Power, Private Dams: The Hells Canyon High Dam Controversy. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006. The story of the dam controversy and the power struggle that took place in the years following World War II.
  • Connelly, Joel. “Salvation for Hells Canyon.” National Parks, March/April, 1994, 25-29. A journalistic account of the turmoil between preservationists and jet boaters, loggers, grazers, and developers who want access to the canyon and river.
  • McCoy, Charles. “Rafts of Ire.” The Wall Street Journal, August 18, 1994. Discusses the rise of violence among former preservationists battling over logging, grazing, jet boating, and development of Hells Canyon. Focuses on the role of Ric Bailey.
  • Noton, Boyd. “The Last Great Dam.” Audubon, January, 1970, 14-27. A member of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council presents a brief early history of Hells Canyon, describing in detail early phases of the battle to establish the Hells Canyon National River. Breathtaking photographs accompany the article.
  • Palmer, Tim. The Snake River: Window to the West. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1991. A descriptive history of the Snake River, incorporating a daily travel log interspersed with historical background. Chapters 7 and 8 focus on Hells Canyon and the political battle to gain its status as a recreation area. Includes Floyd Harvey’s reflections on the early preservation battle.

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