It has been nearly three years since FRONTLINE creator David Fanning contacted us to license Red Gold, a day we’ll certainly never forget. Another day we’ll never forget is when FRONTLINE kicked our asses out of Boston during the re-edit. It took a few months for them to realize that having the Red Gold name on their program was a bad idea, considering it was partly funded by donations from anti-Pebble non-profits. [you gotta respect their journalistic integrity] Travis, Lauren and I tucked our tails and headed home—knowing that the most important thing was that awareness of the issue would be spread into more than a million homes when this sucker airs [tonight!] After several more filming missions by us, and one by a PBS crew, “Alaska Gold” premieres all over the country tonight and should be available for streaming here at FRONTLINE. Thank you FRONTLINE for this phenomenal opportunity—even if our credits are buried deep, we couldn’t be more proud. Expect a drastically different film, more along the lines of the classic FRONTLINE style.  —bk

Here’s the synopsis from FRONTLINE: The Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska is home to the last great wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world. It’s also home to enormous mineral deposits—copper, gold, molybdenum—estimated to be worth up to $500 billion. Now, two foreign mining companies are proposing to extract this mineral wealth by digging one of North America’s largest open-pit mines, the “Pebble Mine,” at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. FRONTLINE travels to Alaska to probe the fault lines of a growing battle between those who depend on this extraordinary fishery for a living, the mining companies who are pushing for Pebble, and the political framework that will ultimately decide the outcome.



Title, check. Synopsis, check.

Ok, two things: the above photo of Washington’s lower Elwha Dam was taken about six months ago. It is now GONE. Secondly, I had to look up the word “synopsis” which is probably a bad sign when you’re writing a synopsis. Oh well, don’t judge.

Ninety-nine years after Olympic National Park’s Elwha River was illegally dammed, wild Chinook salmon still instinctively gather at the foot of the lower dam as if they  sense a change in the current. Upstream, the usual low rumble of antique turbines generating electricity has faded, and the piercing sound of an excavator-mounted jackhammer reverberates off the 210-foot tall Glines Canyon Dam. De-construction crews have begun the painstaking process of chipping away at its mossy, con-caved facade. This moment marks the beginning of the largest dam removal in US history, unveiling the best opportunity for wild salmon recovery in the Country.

Dam removal is no longer the work of a fictional Monkey Wrench Gang. It’s real, upon us, a cornerstone of the modern environmental and cultural movements. The benefits from dams, including hydropower, urban water supply, irrigation, and flood protection have played a critical role in the development of the United States—but river ecosystems and Native American heritage suffered greatly. Now, many of these antiquated relics of the industrial revolution are classified as public safety hazards by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The short-sighted development of a bygone era is growing more prevalent—In many cases, the high cost of retrofitting an aging dam, and meeting current environmental standards has led to a surprising shift in thinking: Dam owners, impacted communities, and politicians are now reevaluating the usefulness of certain dams and often advocating for decommissioning and removal. Some call it a movement, others call it a generational shift in values. Regardless of what it’s dubbed, an undeniable momentum behind river restoration has begun.

DamNation is a collection of empassioned voices and spirited stories from the people entrenched on both sides of this devisive issue. Examining the history and controversy behind current and proposed dam removal projects, DamNation presents a dynamic perspective on Man’s attempt to harness and control the power of water at the expense of nature. Nothing lasts forever, not even the concrete monoliths that have impounded America’s free flowing rivers in the name of “progress” for ages.

—Ben Knight

Used dams for sale, best offer

I’ve heard of a non-profit raising money to save something, but have you ever heard of buying something to destroy it? Well, that’s the idea Laura Rose Day [above], executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust put into action. In December 2010, A group of organizations working together as the Penobscot River Restoration Trust officially took possession of the Veazie, Great Works and Howland dams from Pennsylvania Power and Light in a historic deal worth $24 million.

From Kevin Miller at the Bangor Daily News: Under an agreement brokered in 2004, PPL agreed to sell the three dams to the trust for roughly $25 million. PPL, in return, gained authorization to increase power generation at six other dams along the river, entirely offsetting the generation losses incurred when the Veazie, Howland and Great Works dams are decommissioned.

“This landmark partnership has proven that business, government and interested citizens can reach mutually agreeable solutions that benefit the community, the economy and the environment,” Dennis Murphy, a vice president and chief operating officer at PPL, said in a statement Monday.

Once complete, the project will have reopened nearly 1,000 miles of river and streams within the Penobscot watershed to endangered Atlantic salmon, sturgeon, American shad, alewives and seven other species of migratory, sea-run fish. In turn, those species help support other commercially important species, such as cod and lobster.

“This may well turn out to be the most important day for Atlantic salmon in the past 200 years,” Bill Taylor, president of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, said in a statement Monday. “The Penobscot project is our best — and perhaps last — chance of restoring a major run of wild Atlantic salmon in the United States.”

But supporters insist fish and other wildlife won’t be the only beneficiaries. They also predict that fishermen and tourists will be drawn to the freer-flowing river. The Penobscot endeavor has been hailed internationally as a model river restoration project. [Kevin Miller, Bangor Daily News] 

Demolition of the Great Works Dam [pictured above with Laura Rose Day] is slated to begin in the summer of 2012. There’s a damn good chance it’ll be the biggest party Bangor Maine has ever thrown.

On a divisive dam, a snippy bit of graffiti

We here at Felt Soul Media really enjoyed this LA Times article by Steve Chawkins

A huge scissors and a dotted line appear on a dam near Ojai. The message: Tear it down.

If life imitated art, it would be a simple matter to follow the dotted line and snip a 200-foot dam near Ojai off the face of the earth. For years, an alliance of environmentalists, fishermen, surfers and officials from every level of government has called for demolishing the obsolete structure. Now, an anonymous band of artists has weighed in, apparently rappelling down the dam’s face to paint a huge pair of scissors and a long dotted line. The carefully planned work popped up last week and is, no doubt, Ventura County’s most environmentally correct graffiti by a dam site.

“Everyone I’ve talked to has really enjoyed it,” said Jeff Pratt, Ventura County’s public works director. “It sends a good message.” That message? Tear the thing down already.

Matilija Dam was built in 1947 for flood control and water storage. But officials say it was flawed from the outset. For decades, it’s been holding back silt as much as water, depriving beaches 17 miles downstream of the sand they need to replenish themselves.It’s also been deemed a huge obstacle for steelhead trout, an endangered species that was once a trophy fish luring anglers from across the country.

Officials say they don’t know who painted the shears, and they’re careful to note that such acts — even in the name of art — are illegal and dangerous. The dam is challenging enough that rescue squads use it for climbing practice, pounding in metal anchors that may have aided the scissors hands. But even if the painting is no more legal than garden-variety graffiti, some say it speaks to the takedown’s glacial pace.

“We’ve studied this to death and talked about it forever,” said Paul Jenkin of the Matilija Coalition, an alliance of community groups pushing for the dam’s removal. “There’s very strong support from the community, and that’s part of what we’re seeing with the graffiti.”

Coincidentally, environmentalists, county officials, the Army Corps of Engineers and others concerned about Matilija met on Wednesday — the morning a story about the mystery shears appeared on the front page of the Ventura County Star. The group is facing obstacles comparable to those of the steelhead trout: six million cubic yards of silt, an earthquake fault, and costs estimated at more than $140 million. In better times, federal funding seemed close at hand — but now, not so much. The current plan is ambitious enough: Take pressure off the aging structure by chopping 20 feet off the top and allowing more sediment to wash downstream. Meanwhile, the artwork will stay in place. ”It’s certainly raised awareness,” Pratt said. [Steve Chawkins, LA Times, Sept. 19, 2011]

9000 miles

There comes a time when you just have to go home. Since late July, we’ve driven over 9000 miles and put over 20 hours of footage in the can for Amend. People often say “the Pacific Northwest is anywhere a salmon can swim.” Well, the dams in California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho have certainly done their part in changing those boundaries in the last century.

The amount of tax payer money being funneled to Salmon recovery efforts is staggering, and mostly spent on hatchery fish. Some dams still crank out an impressive amount of hydro power, but many are in need of prohibitively expensive upgrades to be efficient—or to provide decent fish passage. The majority of dams that are coming out [or slated to] are being removed for purely economic reasons—nevertheless, it still counts as a victory for wild Pacific Salmon, Steelhead, and anyone who has a soft spot for a free flowing river.

Travis and I are headed east next, to interview a politician or two in DC, and then up to Maine to see if there’s still hope for the mighty Atlantic Salmon. We’ve sadly traded the van for some sh*tty airline, but our exploration of this issue is still far from over. We’ll be back in Oregon later this month for the demolition of the “historic” Condit Dam on the White Salmon River.

Huge thanks thus far to Patagonia, everyone who has taken such good care of us on the road, to Sherry for the use of her monster van, to Beda for just being an absolute angel, and to Melissa and Katie for putting up with an absent husband and boyfriend. Oh, and thank you Travis for putting up with me, I don’t know how you do it.

Last, but not remotely least—Thank you to the Telluride Mountainfilm festival for honoring us with their 2011 Mountainfilm Commitment Grant. Amend is one of five winners this year, and three of them happen to be our friends. [Congrats Drew, Suzan and Hal!] Mountainfilm has been a huge part of my life for 14 years, and the sole reason I started tinkering with moving images. It’s a damn good feeling to have them as a partner on Amend. [bk]  


Thanks to a bit of inspiration from author Steven Hawley, Travis and I paid our respects to Idaho’s Sunbeam Dam on the Salmon River. Constructed in 1910 to provide power to a near-by mining operation, little thought was given to the fact that it blocked fish passage—Most importantly to the Idaho sockeye. Today, about two thirds of the original structure remains—but the details of how it was breached in 1934 are surprisingly foggy. Idaho Fish and Game supposedly had a line item on the budget for demolition of the dam in 1930, but Hawley says it went unpaid. What’s left of the Sunbeam tombstone may be our earliest example of river restoration done right: blow the son-of-a-bitch up, and the river will take care of the rest. [bk]

Our boy—Matt Stoecker

Amend co-producer and career restoration ecologist Matt Stoecker emerges from the deep, cold, creepy currents of Elwha Dam’s river right spillway. We lent Matt our underwater housing and he’s been taking care of all our aquatic wildlife needs. The Chinook were a bit timid that day, but he was able to sneak up on a couple pinks doing unmentionable acts of fish love just a dozen yards downstream. Take a gander at this hot profile Chris Malloy and Jason Baffa put together on Matt for Patagonia’s “Preoccupations” series: