Speeches & Floor Statements

Opening Statement: Former U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin Opposes Army Corps Fishing Restrictions

April 24, 2013 - April 24, 2013

I would like to turn to another matter.  In his biography of Thomas Jefferson, Jon Meacham writes that Jefferson liked to fish. Jefferson ‘had a favorite spot,’ Meacham writes, ‘below the old dam on the Rivanna River.’ Thomas Jefferson, if he were alive, would be pleased to know Americans followed his example. Americans like to fish, and in Tennessee we have nearly 900,000 Tennesseans who brought fishing licenses last year, and they like to fish below the dams just like President Jefferson liked to do, because they know that is where the fishing is sometimes the best. 

That is why there is such an uproar in Tennessee and in Kentucky and from fishermen all over the country about the unreasonable obstinacy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in seeking to put up physical barriers to fishing below the 10 dams on the Cumberland River.

The Corps of Engineers is an honorable institution. The flooding season is upon us, and we all remember the terrific job they did last year and the year before when we had such serious floods along the Mississippi. We are grateful to them for that. But for whatever reason, the Corps of Engineers is rejecting every reasonable proposal from the states of Tennessee and Kentucky to say let us work with you to ensure safety below the dams on the Cumberland River in a way that continues to allow fishing when it is safe and that allows us to attract the jobs into our area.

Senator Corker, Senator McConnell, Senator Paul, Congressman Whitfield, Congressman Cooper, Congresswoman Blackburn -- we have all introduced legislation we call the Freedom to Fish Act.  I met with every general and colonel I could find.  I even talked to the Secretary of the Army and said: What in the world are you doing here? On these 10 dams ever since they have been built in the 1960s, people have been fishing there with their children and grandchildren. Some of the most ardent fisherman are retired Army Corps of Engineers people. 

They always come back and say: We have to ensure public safety. Of course they have to ensure public safety, but there are various ways to do that.  They do not have to put up physical barriers across the dam. So they are on a path to take $2.6 million, during a time of sequester, that is needed for other projects to build these monstrosities across the river below these 10 dams. Up to now it has been mostly those of us in Congress who registered the complaints of the men and women who like to fish. I went to a rally at Old Hickory Dam about a month ago. There were a lot of people there. They were not of any particular party, I would say. They were tea party, environmentalist, outdoors men and women, retired Corps of Engineers people, a lot of grandparents -- people were mad because they fished there with their grandchildren and wanted to keep doing it.  Then I went up to Kentucky to Lake Barkley a week ago with Senator McConnell, Senator Paul, and Congressman Whitfield and found the same sort of thing there. The argument is that it is unsafe. Of course it is unsafe when the water is spilling through the dam.  That is about 20 percent of the time.

The rest of the time it is safe.  Restricting fishing below the dams 100 percent of the time when it is only dangerous 20 percent of the time is like keeping the crossing gate down over the railroad track 100 percent of the time.  We could do that.  I think we have nearly 130,000 railroad crossings, but if we had a gate down on them all the time we could never go anywhere.  People expect drivers to have enough sense to stay off the track when the train is coming. The track is not dangerous when the train is not coming and the water is not dangerous for fishing when it is not spilling through the dam. 

One reason we are outdoorsmen in this country -- and the great American outdoors is a part of the American character and our ethic -- is we want to go outside and evaluate the risk. We want to be on our own. We want to be able to make decisions. We don't want a government that is so all powerful and all knowing that it makes it risk free when we go into the great American outdoors.

Now we have an additional voice that comes from the Democratic side of the aisle, and more important from the legal side. The Corps of Engineers, in talking with me, said: You know, we have legal liability. Here is an article that was in The Tennessean yesterday about the comments of Jerry Martin, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, who retired last week. He was appointed by President Obama as a leading Democrat in the area. This is the U.S. attorney position that was first held by Andrew Jackson at one time. This is what the article said:

“Responding to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' proposal to limit fishing on dams along the Cumberland River and its tributaries in Kentucky, former U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin said that the Corps’ plan is not worth the effort.

Martin, who just weeks ago would have been responsible with carrying out the Corps’ wishes, said the Tennessee Valley Authority’s siren system, which goes off when water is released from the dams, is enough to ensure public safety.

The Corps has proposed barriers along the river that would limit fishing access, citing safety concerns.  Detractors say the move could cost millions of tourism dollars every year.

‘These waters belong to the citizens,’ Martin, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010, said in a prepared statement. ‘In light of the tremendous protection from liability enjoyed by the Corps, I don't think it's reasonable for the Corps to ban everyone at all times from these public places.’ ” 

I am concluding my remarks because I see the Senator from Wyoming has arrived. 

Let's stop and think about this a minute. The Corps of Engineers now already has everybody in Tennessee of any political stripe saying: You are taking an unreasonable step. They have the wildlife agencies of Tennessee and Kentucky saying: We would like to work with you to help you do a better job of ensuring safety below the dams when the water is spilling through the dams, which is 20 percent of the time. We have the Tennessee Valley Authority with dams on the Tennessee River, which makes the Cumberland look like a stream, and the TVA allows fishing below the dams. It has sirens, it has signs, it has whistles. It assumes people are wise enough not to roll up just below the dam when the water is spilling through it. Just like we assume we are wise enough, if we put on a siren and put on the red lights, not to sit on the railroad tracks when a train is coming.

Now the former lawyer who would have been responsible for defending the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a liability case says: 

“These waters belong to the citizens. In light of the tremendous protection from liability enjoyed by the Corps, I do not believe it is reasonable for the Corps to ban everyone at all times from these public places.”

I call on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to recognize the voices of the people of our country -- all over the country -- who fish below these dams and accept the offer of the two states, Kentucky and Tennessee, to work with the corps to develop a reasonable attitude, a reasonable way of ensuring public safety for fishing below the dams. That is our opinion. We will pass a law to make it happen if we have to, but given the statement, especially of the retired U.S. attorney, Jerry Martin, who would have been the Corps' lawyer in defending lawsuits about this, the Corps needs to change its mind, act reasonably, and spend that $2.6 million on some more-needed project.