Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Win for Salmon

When you think about a big, long, arduous environmental struggle, you are likely to picture legislation, lobbying, education, late nights spent strategizing and stuffing envelopes... but you don't typically think of art, theatre, and children.

Those elements played a big part in the twenty-year struggle of activists in southeastern Washington to get the 100-year-old Condit Dam torn down. When the dam was constructed, it blocked not only the White Salmon River, but also cut off the run of wild salmon and steelhead to their spawning grounds.

And from the start, salmon have been big players in the efforts of the activists, including Daniel Dancer, an artist (and member of the Radical Joy for Hard Times Council of Advisors). Frequently, the group held "Salmon Pageants," where children, carrying large, colorful cut-outs of the fish, would "breach" a wall. Part-ceremony, part-theatre, the pageants kept the vision of an undammed river a reality for the activists.

Repeatedly the officials in charge of the dam insisted that they would not remove it. By 2011, however, they determined that the cost of repairing the century-old structure would be higher than tearing it down, so, thanks to the persuasiveness of economics, the activists and the salmon won.

On October 26, 2011, when the children who enacted the first pageants had become young adults, the dam was exploded. Daniel Dancer has made an engrossing short (18 minutes) film, "The Art of Dam Removal". It includes footage from newscasts of the first protests, interviews with activists along the way, and the exuberant salmon pageants. The pay-off is exhilarating. When the pent-up river bursts through the breach, you can't help feeling it's a wild creature jubilantly bursting out into the world it remembers from long ago and can't wait to get back to. Even the guys in hardhats are exhilarated. "She's free!" one of them exclaims!

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