This committee has not viewed the Endangered Species Act as preventing the completion and use of these projects which were well under way at the time the affected species were listed as endangered. If the act has such an effect, which is contrary to the Committee’s understanding of the intent of Congress in enacting the Endangered Species Act, funds should be appropriated to allow these projects to be completed and their benefits realized in the public interest, the Endangered Species Act not withstanding.
Burger’s opinion made it clear that, as written, the Endangered Species Act explicitly forbade the completion of such projects as Tellico if the Secretary of Interior had determined that such a project would likely result in the elimination of a species. Regardless of the fact that over $100 million had been spent by 1978, and the dam was substantially finished, the court could not allow the TVA to finish the project. According to Burger, this would force the court “to ignore the ordinary meaning of plain language."
The Supreme Court decision set off a fury in Congress as some members sought to rework the act. In his tome "The Fishes of Tennessee", David Etnier later wrote: “the snail darter had become almost a household word, and in current usage ‘snail darter types’ is approximately synonymous with ‘ultra-liberal environmental activists.’”
There was a fear in Congress that many projects in the country would be affected by litigation as biologists might set out to discover obscure species, including insects or even micro-biotic life forms. The proponents of the “God Committee” amendment saw it as a way of keeping the Endangered Species Act alive. According to the Burger opinion, U.S. Endangered Species laws at that time “represented the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species ever enacted by any nation.”
Instead of granting Tellico an exemption from the Endangered Species Act, the committee voted unanimously in favor of the snail darter. On January 23 1979, the Committee unanimously denied an exemption for Tellico specifically on economic grounds, rather than ecological grounds. “I hate to see the snail darter get the credit for stopping a project that was ill-conceived and uneconomic in the first place,” said Chairman Andrus. The reservoir project deserved to be killed on its own merits. As Charles Schultze, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors and a member of the Committee, said, “Here is a project that is 95% complete, and if one takes the cost of finishing it against the total project benefits, and does it properly, it doesn’t pay, which says something about the original design.”
The opposition would make much of the problematic benefit-cost issue throughout the 1970s. Despite his credentials as one of the nation’s top economists, however, Schultze was no more prepared to accurately predict future benefits than anyone else at the time. Wheeler and McDonald state the problem was TVA’s general unfamiliarity with econometric models used to come up with benefit-cost ratios. Such models require some underlying assumptions. Wheeler and McDonald identify five general assumptions TVA used and declared them all to be false. They were: (1) The Tellico area would remain economically static without the project. (2) All economic projects that occurred in the area after completion of the project should be attributed to the project. (3) If an economic benefit could take place at Tellico, then it would. (4) The Tellico Project would not detract from any economic benefits already being enjoyed in the area. (5) Once set, costs would not rise faster than the normal annual inflation rate of the early 1960s.
Congress had updated and strengthened the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Tellico Dam opponents had successfully sued under the provisions of that law to stop the dam. The Supreme Court had stated that as written, it was clear that Congress intended to protect all species including the snail darter. In 1978 Congress amended the law with the case of the snail darter specifically in mind.
Baker then drafted an amendment that excluded the Tellico project from the Endangered Species Act, along the lines initially suggested by the federal courts. Duncan got the amendment passed by the House on June 18 1979, on a voice vote. The vote became infamous among dam opponents. Baker introduced the amendment in the Senate on July 17 and was defeated on a vote of 45-53. Undeterred, Baker reintroduced the amendment in September. Baker spoke in favor of his amendment on the Senate floor:
Mr. President, I hope this is the last time around. I hope we can resolve this issue once and for all, and I hope reason will finally prevail. . . .
Mr. President, the awful beast is back. The Tennessee snail darter, the bane of my existence, the nemesis of my golden years, the bold perverter of the Endangered Species Act is back.
He is still insisting that the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River, a dam that is now 99% complete, be destroyed.
p>In the midst of a national energy crisis, the snail darter demands that we scuttle a project that would produce 200 million kilowatt hours of hydroelectric power and save an estimated 15 million gallons of oil.
Although other residences have been found in which he can thrive serenely, the snail darter stubbornly insists on keeping this particular stretch of the Little Tennessee River as his principal domicile. ...
Let me stress again, Mr. President, that this is fine with me. I have nothing personal against the snail darter. He seems to be quite a nice little fish, as fish go.
Now seriously Mr. President, the snail darter has become an unfortunate example of environmental extremism, and this kind of extremism, if rewarded and allowed to persist, will spell the doom to the environmental protection movement in this country more surely and more quickly than anything else. ...
We who voted for the Endangered Species Act with the honest intentions of protecting such glories of nature as the wolf, the eagle, and other treasures have found that extremists with wholly different motives are using this noble act for meanly obstructive ends. ...
On November 29 1979, with retired TVA Chairman Red Wagner watching, the TVA closed the gates on the Tellico Dam. Before the closure of the gates of Tellico Dam, numerous snail darters were transplanted into the Hiwassee River. The snail darter was taken off the endangered species list in the 1980s.