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Candidates Not Ready to
Take Sides on Salmon, Dams

by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, April 15, 2008

None of the three remaining major-party candidates for president will rule out breaching dams to save Columbia and Snake River salmon. But they don't support dam breaching now, either.

Republican John McCain made the strongest pitch for preserving the four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington, citing concerns about energy security and climate change. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama say they want to see stronger efforts to restore salmon habitat before removing dams is considered.

The candidates recently responded to questions about salmon and dams sent to the campaigns by the Idaho Statesman.

McCain's campaign expressed support for the dams during the Washington GOP primary. But the Democrats have not yet been asked publicly about salmon and dams, despite both Democrats having campaigned in Oregon in advance of the May 20 primary.

The lack of attention is surprising, given the deep divisions created in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s when 13 species of salmon and steelheads were declared threatened or endangered.

Salmon are a tangible and ancient manifestation of the wild character of the region. They still provide economic benefits to fishing communities and spiritual sustenance to Northwest Indian tribes. The four dams, which the majority of scientists say must come out if Snake River salmon are to survive, help sustain the economy: the slackwater behind the dams allows shipping 730 miles from the coast toLewiston; the dams at their peaks generate enough hydroelectricity to power Seattle.


Clinton said President Bush has done little to help salmon during the past seven years, said Isaac Baker, a Clinton campaign spokesman.

"Sen. Clinton will make every effort to restore wild salmon stocks," Baker said. "While she does not at this time favor breaching dams, she will place a far greater emphasis on habitat restoration."

McCain's equivocal answer helped George Bush beat him in the Washington primary eight years ago.

Asked whether he supported breaching that year, McCain responded, "I want to see the science first." That was interpreted as leaving the door open for breaching the four dams, which a majority of fisheries biologists say may need to go for Snake River salmon to survive. Bush flatly opposed breaching and made preserving the dams the centerpiece of his Columbia-Snake salmon policy.

This time, McCain wants to be clear.

"Sen. McCain supports preserving the role of the Snake River dams first, for energy security, and second, because of climate change," said Crystal Benton, a campaign spokeswoman."

McCain doesn't see his position as a change from 2000, Benton said. He supported increased efforts to improve salmon migration. As for the listening to the science: "He's continuing to do that," she said.

Obama said the Columbia and Snake River basins are important economic, energy and ecological resources for the country.

"Implementing a meaningful salmon population recovery plan will be a key environmental priority of my administration, and I support efforts to create a salmon recovery plan that balances all of these important environmental, agricultural and renewable energy interests," he said in a statement. As president, he'd work with the region to enact a restoration plan.

So what about dam breaching?

"Barack Obama believes action must be taken to protect the salmon population and ensure its survival for generations to come," said Nick Shapiro, an Obama spokesman. "To that end, he believes all efforts to restore habitat must be exhausted before dam breaching is considered."


The three candidates' responses please Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners. The Portland-based group represents Northwest businesses that get their power from the federal dams and oppose breaching.

"It's clear that the presidential candidates understand the issue," Flores said. "In a time of climate change concern, it is ever more important to keep our renewable energy sources like the Snake River dams in place."

Nicole Cordan, the policy director for Save Our Wild Salmon in Portland, believes McCain backed off his 2000 position, and she is disappointed. But she expressed hope that all three candidates are more open-minded than President Bush.

"I think what the salmon community is looking for is someone to listen with an open ear, follow the science and the law, and look for the possibilities across the board on how to resolve this," Cordan said.

Rocky Barker
Candidates Not Ready to Take Sides on Salmon, Dams
Idaho Statesman, April 15, 2008

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