May 10, 2019
By Samantha Wohlfeil
"Are you going to study the Southern Residents when you grow up?" a voice off camera asks young London Fletcher, who is already passionate about the remaining pods of orca whales that live in Puget Sound.
"Well that really just depends if the Southern Residents are still around when I grow up," she answers.
Her response quickly sums up the devastating stakes for whale researchers, who for decades have tried to figure out how to keep the orcas from going extinct.
The struggle to save the declining Southern Resident killer whales is the subject of the new documentary Dammed to Extinction, which was produced and directed by Michael Peterson and writer Steven Hawley.
The film will be screened for free in Spokane at 7 pm, Thursday, May 16, at the Garland Theater. The event is sponsored by Sierra Club, Earth Justice and Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition working to breach four Snake River dams in order to save salmon runs throughout the Columbia/Snake River system. A Q&A with the filmmakers will follow the screening of the roughly hourlong film.
The Inlander caught up with Peterson by phone to get some background on the making of the documentary.
Peterson grew up in the Tri-Cities and graduated from Eastern Washington University back in 1986. After working in local TV and radio for a few years, he moved to L.A. to launch his film career.
Over two decades, his work in visual effects landed him credits on movies such as Independence Day, Armageddon, Star Trek: First Contact and Volcano. He also did a lot of work on commercials for major companies and music videos for popular singers.
With changes in the industry enabling movie-quality production to be cheaper than ever, and the draw of being closer to his parents, getting married and starting a family, Peterson moved back to the Pacific Northwest, where he can work on projects that feel more important to him.
"I worked on commercials for huge companies like McDonald's, and selling sugary cereals to kids. Stuff I didn't feel so great about," Peterson says. "Helping shoot these films like Dammed to Extinction has a lot more redeeming value."
The idea for the orca documentary, which was made with a team of Hollywood transplants throughout the Northwest, initially came from a conversation with Hawley, who Peterson has been friends with for close to 20 years.
Hawley wrote the book Recovering a Lost River, which had already inspired another documentary, DamNation, and he felt there was more to show.
"We were floating down the Deschutes River one day in his drift boat and he said, 'There’s a chapter in my book I’d like to bring to life in a movie,'" Peterson says. "It was about how Southern Resident killer whales are starving to death."
Among other issues, the whales have experienced a severe lack of Chinook salmon, which have dwindled in recent years. Fewer of the female whales are having calves, and fewer of those calves are able to survive.
As presented in the documentary, one of the best ways to help more Chinook survive and help feed the whales is to remove four lower Snake River dams that make it hard for juvenile salmon to make their way out to sea.
As someone who grew up near the dams, Peterson wanted to approach the topic as sensitively and fairly as possible.
"I grew up in Richland, and they’re just part of your culture, they’re part of your life. You go water skiing behind the dams, fishing behind the dams," he says. "They’re these huge structures you could never imagine being gone."
Exploring dam breaching as a way to help the whales wasn't something Peterson had thought about before, but the science and data were convincing.
"I am a filmmaker, and I’ve become a reluctant environmentalist, honestly. Now I’m quite a champion for the cause," Peterson says. "Now that I look much closer, I realize how destructive they are. The mitigation and hatcheries are just not able to keep up."
Throughout the film, Peterson and Hawley explore the subject through interviews with researchers, retired engineers and wildlife professionals, and by looking at the state of Bonneville Power Administration, which sells power from the dams and are run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
There is also a moving interview with Carrie Chapman Nightwalker Schuster, a Palouse Tribal elder who describes the riverside home she grew up in, and the devastation for her family when the dams were built, destroying everything they'd known.
Peterson says the film team tried to get interviews with Republican U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who have rigorously fought to protect the Snake River dams, as well as with someone from BPA, but none of them agreed to be in the film.
However, he still hopes that no matter where people stand on dam removal, they'll come to the screening with an open mind.
"The main thing is, I wanted this film to be watchable for everybody. Whatever side of the issue you’re on, it’s not going to offend people," Peterson says. "People who are pro dam, I hope they don't dig their heels in, and instead go, 'That’s an interesting point. I never considered that.'"
Dammed to Extinction • Thu, May 16 at 7 pm • Free • All ages • Garland Theater • 924 W. Garland • dammedtoextinction.com