ROGUE RIVER — The 80-year-old Fielder Dam is gone, after more than a week of pounding from heavy equipment.

As of Friday all that remained was the fish ladder that fish biologists said severely restricted migration of salmon and steelhead, the impetus for dam removal.

When the channel excavation gets done this week, salmon and steelhead migrating up the Rogue River and into Evans Creek should find it easier to get to 70 miles of spawning tributaries.

"This is great news for salmon and steelhead, and the many people who love the Rogue River," said Bob Hunter of WaterWatch, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting Oregon streams and rivers and their fisheries.

But Steve and Sharon Keeton, on whose property the dam once sat, say it's bad news for individual property owners.

The Keetons gazed out at a "graveyard," as Sharon put it, on Friday, of rubble.

"We were forced into doing the whole thing," said Steve Keeton, a financial analyst with an office in Rogue River. "Everybody's making it sound wonderful. We know the environmentalists have their position, and we totally disagree with it.

"They have the power, the money, the political environment, and the court system, frankly."

The Keetons bought the property more than 30 years ago, and have grown to love the impoundment behind the dam, where they see turtles, bald eagles and an occasional otter.

They say their property value will drop, the ecosystem behind the former dam will suffer, and the fish ladder was sufficient.

"All we did was buy a piece of property that already had a dam on it," Sharon Keeton said. "My family has watched fish navigate up that fish ladder in the hundreds, maybe thousands."

"They could have made a real simple improvement to the fish ladder and saved a whole lot of money," Steve Keeton added.

Fish biologists said the ladder, which was reinforced in the early 1980s when it was crumbling, wasn't up to snuff, especially for fall chinook.

Following removal of Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue in 2009 and Gold Ray Dam upstream in 2010, fisheries advocates set sights on Wimer and Fielder dams on Evans Creek, both included in the top 10 worst fish barriers in the state. Wimer Dam, five miles upstream from Fielder, was demolished in July.

During the process, Hunter approached the Keetons with what they characterized as a heavy-handed approach. WaterWatch eventually filed suit against the Keetons because the dam was violating the federal Endangered Species Act, which forced their hand.

"We were bullied until we finally had no choice but to sign their agreement," Sharon Keeton said.

"We explained to them the dam was a liability to them as landowners because it harmed ESA listed coho salmon," Hunter said. "That's been documented by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Certainly WaterWatch was willing to enforce the law."

The dam, which hasn't diverted irrigation water for more than three decades, has no water rights, which Hunter said makes it an illegal dam.

Later, Sharon Keeton's brother Rod Crume appealed Jackson County's decision to allow dam demolition, which was denied.

When work began in early August, Crume sat down and blocked the access road for three hours, until law enforcement was called in.

The Keetons' received $5,000 for what was called a license agreement to use their property during dam removal, but felt they should have been compensated more for property loss.

"We didn't do this for any $5,000," Steve Keeton said. "This has created a lot of grief for us."

Other dam removal foes have brought up sediment as an issue.

State Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, said he responded to a request from former state Rep. Gordon Anderson to look into the sediments.

"I talked to the governor's office, the Department of Environmental Quality and Division of State Lands," Baertschiger said. "I didn't get any satisfaction with any of them. The agencies felt the sampling was adequate."

An abandoned uranium mine exists in the upper Evans Creek drainage, raising questions about potential arsenic and uranium being unleashed into the creek and, downstream, the Rogue.

Scott Wright, lead engineer for the River Design Group, which oversaw the project, said when two smaller dams were removed upstream of Wimer and Fielder dams in the past 20 years, no harmful heavy metals showed up in sampling done later.

"We absolutely knew about that (old mine) and we researched it," Wright said. "They didn't find anything upstream. I don't know why we'd find anything downstream.

"We're not trying to hide anything," Wright added. "It's not about the sediment. It's not about anything other than them thinking WaterWatch is trying to push their agenda onto private property owners."

The Keetons call what's left on their property "a travesty, an ugly mess."

Hunter acknowledged the demolition has been hard on the Keetons.

"They love it, they own it, it's been in the family a long time," he said. "But this is a project with huge public benefits." 

Reach reporter Jeff Duewel at 541-474-3720 or jduewel@thedailycourier.com.