UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The High Ross Dam/Skagit River controversy : the use of public hearings in the management of an international river Wolfe, Larry Dennis Sturm


The High Ross controversy was a problem in the management of an International river. An international river presents a special problem because the actions of a nation upstream may cause problems for a nation downstream or vice versa. A river is also a finite resource where uses for one purpose may exclude uses for other purposes. The use of a river for hydroelectric power, for example, may destroy fisheries. In the case of an international river, conflicting demands on water use may present serious problems if the nations riparian to the river fail to coordinate their planning with respect to the river. In this study, it is normatively assumed that the best system for insuring that the interests of all concerned will be heard is a democracy. In a democracy it is a principle that the decision system should respond to the preferences of its citizens. To do this it must first be able to perceive these preferences. A public hearing is one vehicle for accepting information concerning the preferences of citizens. The goal of this study is to assess certain public hearings which were held in reference to the raising of Ross Dam on the Skagit River in Washington State. The issue of whether to raise the dam has created an international controversy lasting for years and involving the energies of hundreds of persons on both sides of the border. The hearings of interest in this study are certain hearings of 1970 through 1972 held by the International Joint Commission, the Washington Ecological Commission, and the Seattle City Council. The approach taken in this thesis began with isolating two normative criteria among many which any democratic system must have: openness and efficiency. Openness is the ability of a system to perceive the preferences of its citizens. This means that there should be no arbitrary restrictions upon what the decision-makers should see. Efficiency means that the process should be simple and not limited to a select group with the most time, money, and expertise to participate. Having established these criteria, the next step was to isolate the location in the hearings system where one might expect to find evidence of openness and efficiency. To do this, a theoretical paradigm of a communication system was constructed from political communications theory. This paradigm contained the basic components of a simple communication system. Thus, it was found that any communication system will have messages (input), sources for those messages (input sources), and receptors for perceiving those messages (intake elements). In rational systems there will also be a memory process which selects relevant input from among the mass of intake (screening element). These elements were analyzed in order to assess the hearings investigated. To assemble the data necessary for assessment, a multi-method approach was used. Over four hundred articles in newspapers and periodicals were surveyed. The transcripts of the hearings and resulting reports were closely analyzed. Finally, selected participants who- had key roles in the hearings were interviewed. The information from these sources was used in tandem to examine particular aspects of the hearings process which were suggested by the communication model as relevant. The conclusions derived from this study were that with certain exceptions the procedures used in the hearings studied facilitated openness. Also, while the cost of using the hearings was very high, the participants with few exceptions felt that the expense was justified because the issue was crucial to their interests. However, the weaknesses that did exist in openness and efficiency merit attention and should be remedied to strengthen the system. The result of this strengthening would be a more responsive and democratic process for managing international rivers.

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