Research Notes

Dynamics of Change in the 20th-Century Pacific Northwest

By John J. Dougherty

A black and white photo of fishermen spearing salmon on the Columbia River
Treaty fishermen spearing salmon on rapids of the Columbia River near Celilo Falls, Oregon. Photograph taken by Arthur M. Prentiss before March 1957, when The Dalles Dam inundated the historic fishing site. (Public domain via University of Oregon Digital Collection)
John  Dougherty

John J. Dougherty joined the Center as a Postdoctoral Scholar after receiving his PhD in Ethnic Studies from the University of California-Berkeley. He is working on a book manuscript entitled "Flooded by Progress," a history of hydropower's transformation of the Columbia River Basin. An abbreviated book chapter was recently featured in Western Legal History.



In 1941, the United State Department of the Interior hired Woody Guthrie, the renowned American folksinger, to author a series of songs about the hydroelectric development of the Columbia River. Guthrie’s collection, known as the Columbia River Songs, sought to garner regional support for a new and unprecedented era of industrial development in the Pacific Northwest.

Cover of Woody Guthrie's "Roll on Columbia"

Bonneville Power Administration

In his most famous ballad about the Columbia River, Guthrie sings: “Roll on Columbia, roll on/Your power is turning our darkness to dawn/So roll on, Columbia, roll on.” Guthrie’s ballad proved prophetic, as hydropower began to dramatically transform the region like never before. But by the 1970s the story had changed. Over thirty years of extensive industrial development had exacted a significant price on the region’s once abundant natural resources, and new policies of environmental protection and preservation emerged. In 1976, Joe Frazier, a columnist for The Associated Press, commented that the region’s once abundant natural resources had been sacrificed to the “god of cheap hydroelectric power.” It was obvious that the same technologies that made harvest possible in the first place now began to threaten it. 

The changing legal status of Native lands and resources was instrumental in both the industrial expansion of the region and the environmental changes associated with the increased development of natural resources.

As a postdoctoral scholar at the Bill Lane Center, I’m working on a book manuscript about this period of Pacific Northwest history, titled "Flooded by Progress." This project expands our understanding of this period in a too-often-overlooked way, by asking the question: what role did federal Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest play in the demographic, economic and environmental transformation of the region in the second half of the 20th century?

This project examines the politics of federal Indian law and the changing environmental landscape in the Pacific Northwest from the 1940s to present. It argues that the changing legal status of Native lands and resources was instrumental in both the industrial expansion of the region and the environmental changes associated with the increased development of natural resources. This project directly utilizes Western environmental history to help narrate Native American and Pacific Northwest history. From the era of resource abundance of the late 1940s to the era of resource scarcity by the 1970s, environmental history provides a direct response to explaining shifts in Indian policy and natural resource management trends. And while this project is geographically and temporally located in the 20th-century Pacific Northwest, it reflects broader trends of demographic growth, environmental decline, and indigenous displacement that have characterized the American West. An abbreviated book chapter was recently featured inWestern Legal History. 

I began my position with the Bill Lane Center for the American West in August 2014, and in my short time on campus, this project, as well as my scholarly trajectory in general, has taken both important and necessary directions. The overwhelming strength of the Center is their dedication to a multifaceted and interdisciplinary understanding of the American West, but in a way that extends beyond academia and promotes public engagement. The Center accomplishes this by bringing together scholars, journalists, policymakers, students, teachers, and most importantly, stakeholders in particular issues. Because of this mission, I have redirected key parts of my own work. The Center’s bi-weekly working group as well as its collaborations with Stanford’s Water in the West program and Woods Institute for the Environment has contributed a more nuanced and dynamic understanding of environmental policy, natural resource management, and regional politics to my current work. Additionally, the Center’s sophisticated use of data visualization and digital humanities has forced me to reconsider how my own scholarly work can be presented and disseminated to a broader nonscholarly audience. I look forward to another year of fruitful collaborations. 

Recent Center News

Salmon fishing banned again in California; a growing movement against conservation; the history of the Columbia River’s “salmon wars”; new costs and restrictions for oil and gas drilling on public lands; and other recent environmental news from around the West.
Stanford economist Paul Milgrom won a Nobel Prize in part for his role in enabling today’s mobile world. Now he’s tackling a different 21st century challenge: water scarcity.

Image Credit: Getty Images

The future of water in the Southwest was top of mind for participants and attendees at the 10th Annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference.