In 1973 Professor David Etnier of the UT Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department discovered a previously unreported Tennessee fish, Percina tanasi—a species of darter that is a bottom-dwelling, current-loving perch—in the Little Tennessee River. In 1974 TVA’s Tellico Dam project threatened to eradicate the 12 miles of river that was the fish’s only known spawning ground. A suit to halt construction on the dam was filed in federal district court by Hank Hill, UT law student; Zyg Plater, UT professor of law; and Don Cohen, assistant dean of the College of Law.
TVA claimed that construction of the reservoir did not violate the Endangered Species Act, that clear-cutting of trees along the riverbanks was not detrimental to the fish’s habitat, and that the fish probably had a much wider range than had been found. TVA v. Hill made it to the United States Supreme Court in 1978, with the court making a precedent-setting ruling in favor of the Endangered Species Act by ruling in favor of the plaintiff and forbidding the completion of the dam.
Shortly after the environmental victory, Senator Howard Baker Jr. spearheaded the introduction by Tennessee members of Congress of a rider to a large appropriations bill that exempted Tellico Dam from the federal act. President Jimmy Carter let the bill pass, and the Tellico floodgates were closed to form Tellico Lake in 1979.
Both TVA and UT transplanted the tiny fish. The fish was subsequently found by Dr. Etnier in South Chickamauga Creek, 60 miles away. In 1984 the snail darter was upgraded from “endangered” to “threatened.” In 2001, with the snail darter population exceeding one hundred thousand and the fish thriving in the Holston River, the Little Tennessee, the lower French Broad, and even the Fort Loudoun Reservoir, Etnier was able to recommend that the fish be taken off the endangered species list.
A symposium celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the landmark environmental case was held at the College of Law in April 2008. Several individuals involved in the TVA v. Hill case, some former residents who lost their land as a result of Tellico Dam, and UT student and teacher advocates spoke at the event.