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Flooding the border : development, politics, and environmental controversy in the Canadian-U.S. Skagit Valley Van Huizen, Philip


This dissertation is a case study of the 1926 to 1984 High Ross Dam Controversy, one of the longest cross-border disputes between Canada and the United States. The controversy can be divided into two parts. The first, which lasted until the early 1960s, revolved around Seattle’s attempts to build the High Ross Dam and flood nearly twenty kilometres into British Columbia’s Skagit River Valley. British Columbia favoured Seattle’s plan but competing priorities repeatedly delayed the province’s agreement. The city was forced to build a lower, 540-foot version of the Ross Dam instead, to the immense frustration of Seattle officials. British Columbia eventually agreed to let Seattle raise the Ross Dam by 122.5 feet in 1967. Following the agreement, however, activists from Vancouver and Seattle, joined later by the Upper Skagit, Sauk-Suiattle, and Swinomish Tribal Communities in Washington, organized a massive environmental protest against the plan, causing a second phase of controversy that lasted into the 1980s. Canadian and U.S. diplomats and politicians finally resolved the dispute with the 1984 Skagit River Treaty. British Columbia agreed to sell Seattle power produced in other areas of the province, which, ironically, required raising a different dam on the Pend d’Oreille River in exchange for not raising the Ross Dam. I make two broad arguments about the controversy that differ from how stories of environmental conflict are usually told. First, the two types of politics that defined each era of the six-decade controversy – the politics of development and the politics of the environment – were not antithetical; rather, both were part of a larger tension between modernization and the politics of place. Politicians had to balance large-scale, universalized ideas about both dams and wilderness with sentiment tied to territorial boundaries, and often delayed or deferred making decisions about the controversy as a result. Second, representatives from various levels of government in Canada and the United States eventually solved this tension with a type of liberal environmentalist compromise that hinged on the belief that residents had a right to both cheap energy and pristine nature.

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