Saturday, July 13, 2013

Zygmunt J. B. Plater's "The Snail Darter and the Dam"

Zygmunt J. B. Plater is professor of law and director of the Land & Environmental Law Program at Boston College Law School. He chaired the State of Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s Legal Research Task Force, is lead author of an environmental law casebook, and has participated in numerous citizen environmental initiatives. He lives in Newton Highlands, MA.

Here Plater dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, The Snail Darter and the Dam: How Pork-Barrel Politics Endangered a Little Fish and Killed a River:
I had asked Jonathan Harr (A Civil Action; The Lost Caravaggio) to write the book about this dramatic fight between a little fish and a dam, between local citizens and national pork-barrel politics. But Harr said “No, you need to write it, because you were there,”… and, he said, “write it like a movie!

So I did. If they make my book into a film, here’s who I’d like to play the lead roles—

Albert Davis [Tom Hanks] — a shy but powerful Tennessee farmer, a reluctant leader whose family farm is being condemned almost entirely for a corporate developer’s resale profits, not for the dammed lake; hesitant to talk, but when he describes what is being lost, even reporters cry.

Jean Ritchey [Sally Field] — a small, feisty Tennessee famer whose family holds out for more than a dozen years, fighting hard; she testifies repeatedly in Congress, helps build the economic case against the dam, and sets up one of the federal agency’s most embarrassing moments.

Dr. David Etnier [J.K. Simmons] — a feisty, laconic, expert ichthyologist, raconteur, and beer drinker; knows every perch species on planet Earth; bent over one day in the dam-threatened river and caught in his hands the tiny never-before-seen endangered fish, the “snail darter,” that ultimately swims all the way to the Supreme Court, and wins.

Anne Wickham [Kristen Wiig] — a brilliant citizen environmental advocate in Washington, advising and organizing political contacts in Congress for the Tennesseeans; links the author to the nascent Old Girls Network in Washington and plays Yoda to my stumbling Luke Skywalker; a bit flakey, blond, blue-eyed, paralyzed by polio, she does it all from a wheelchair; has to stop midnight vigilante cement-pouring expeditions (making impromptu ramps for non-accessible sidewalk curbs) when appointed to the State Department.

Hank Hill [Jack Black, a dead ringer] — a chunky, explosive, GPA-challenged law student; from his beer-drinking fish biologist student buddies he heard about the fish and decided to write a term paper on how the federal dam might violate the federal endangered species law; his term paper starts the whole crusade.

Representative Albert Gore [Darrell Hammond] — the young, insecure politician trying to earn his eminent senator father’s respect; he makes sound environmental policy his core issue but—faced with corrupt home state politics and the congressional pork barrel—double-crosses the citizens and undercuts the proven merits of their case; anguished, he excludes his home-state’s darter, the decade’s biggest environmental case, from mention in his book Earth in the Balance, subsequently trying to build a more principled environmental career.

Senator Howard Baker [Jason Alexander] — the powerful presidential hopeful Tennessee politician who pretends to be open-minded about the conflict but works deviously behind the scenes to hide the truth about the dam’s destructive economics (much as he had tried to hide the Nixon Watergate facts in his Senate oversight hearings role); he ultimately engineers a backhanded override of the Supreme Court verdict.

Aubrey "Red" Wagner [Dick Cheney] -- the all-powerful Chairman of the TVA, obsessed with building his last of 68 dams, who behind the scenes engineered an array of hypothetical benefit claim justifications for it, and with his pork allies in Congress trampled a farming community, rational economics, and the law in order to push it to completion.

President Jimmy Carter [Dan Ackroyd] — earnest, anguished, honest guy bamboozled by Washington politics and undercut by his civic and Christian principles, thinking that Washington politicians share his concern about the public interest merits of issues, and that if he turns the other cheek his enemies will regard him as worthy rather than weak; his misconceptions lead to a series of defeats and capitulations, including his decision not to veto the Baker override that dooms the snail darter in its river.

The Author, Zygmunt J. B. Plater [Benedict Cumberbatch] — the young, idealistic, insecure Tennessee environmental law teacher from Up North who realizes that the little fish case requires fulltime crusaders; through a trick gets the fish officially listed in Washington, carries the case up through the courts, getting fired for being “immoderate”; he camps out and lobbies in the capital as a volunteer for two years, winning in the Supreme Court, ultimately losing to Senator Baker’s congressional strategem and President Carter’s anguished capitulation; (he tries and fails to re-block the dam using a Cherokee Indian constitutional claim); has been described by Rush Limbaugh as a “homo-socialist” and by Sean Hannity as “fringe lunatic.”
Learn more about The Snail Darter and the Dam at the Yale University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Snail Darter and the Dam.

--Marshal Zeringue