Along the Columbia, Concerns for
by William Yardley
STARBUCK, Wash. -- The governor of Montana invited himself to Washington State not long ago to explain to people who live along the Columbia River why they should help Montana export its coal across the Pacific Ocean to China.
Last month, the governor of Idaho turned up near the Columbia's principal tributary, the Snake River, to tell Idahoans that it was good policy to barge enormous oil-production equipment up both rivers and then truck it farther inland in triple-wide loads across a scenic highway.
And then there was President Obama, in his State of the Union speech, extracting a punch line from another Northwest resource famous for making its way, however uncertainly, up and down both rivers.
"The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater," Mr. Obama said. "And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."
The line went over well, for the most part, a populist poke at bureaucratic excess. Yet by making salmon his symbol, Mr. Obama touched tender nerves here in a region where the embattled fish, many of which are endangered species, are inextricably linked to the majestic and controversially managed rivers they struggle to navigate. After all, the fish and the rivers have long been at the forefront of another challenge the president addressed in his speech: how to create energy and jobs while protecting the environment and reducing carbon emissions.
"It came out as a joke, but he doesn't know what we're going through," said Darcy Linklater, the mayor of this faded railroad town just a few miles from the Snake. "It's just such a mess."
It seems everyone wants a piece of the river system that the salmon travel, and agreeing on ways to share it is harder than coming up with one-liners.
On Feb. 1, huge trucks began hauling oil-production equipment to Montana from Lewiston, Idaho's only seaport, located 465 miles east of the ocean and made possible by a series of navigation locks connected to massive concrete dams that control the Columbia and Snake. Soon the trucks are expected to ship much more equipment farther north, to the oil sands of Canada, against opposition from groups who say the route, once traveled by Lewis and Clark, should not be used to advance the future of fossil fuels.
Even as advocates for salmon want some dams removed to ease fish migration, major renovations are under way this winter at three dams to ensure that the barge traffic they enable can continue for decades to come.
"Activity fosters activity," said Dave Doeringsfeld, the manager of the Port of Lewiston. "The opportunity to meet future United States energy needs will benefit from the Columbia-Snake river system."
At the other end of the river basin, in Longview, Wash., commissioners of Cowlitz County recently approved a permit to build an export facility on the Columbia that would allow Montana to haul coal to the river by rail, below the dams, then transfer it to barges so it could be shipped to Asia. Major environmental groups have filed a lawsuit that has delayed the project. Among their arguments is that exporting coal would undercut goals outlined by Northwest political leaders for reducing emissions and producing clean energy.
Documents recently released in the case suggest that the company that would build the facility had hoped to eventually make it far larger than what it had proposed to the state. A crucial factor shaping the company's plans is the limited construction period each year, known as the "fish window," because it is arranged around when salmon are least affected.
To the frustration of advocates for salmon and the rivers, many in the Northwest have long boasted that the region gets much of its power from a renewable resource: hydropower from the dams on the Columbia and Snake. The advocates say there is nothing clean about dams that kill fish and clog rivers.
(In response to the president's speech, Nicole Cordan of Save Our Wild Salmon, wrote that the problem with salmon was not "too many agencies in the kitchen" but that the Obama administration's plan for saving endangered salmon "is half-baked.")
The prospect of now using the rivers to export coal and import oil-production equipment only deepens the tension.
"We've got so-called clean energy fostering dirty-energy sources," said Amy Kober, a spokeswoman for American Rivers, which is celebrating the removal of dams from several rivers this year. "How does that impact our overall climate goals?"
Others worry about local economics. Mr. Linklater, the mayor of Starbuck, makes his living from the river system -- and from more than one side of the debates surrounding it. He runs a tackle shop that depends on a strong salmon run but he also rents space in an r.v. park to workers repairing the dams that impede the fish.
Some of his tenants represent still other interests in the salmon-river-energy nexus. They help install wind turbines rising quickly along the rivers and whose power is intended to complement energy produced by the dams. Or they scour future wind farm sites to avoid disturbing American Indian burial sites deep in the remote and treeless hills that surround much of the Columbia and the Snake in eastern Washington.
These kinds of negotiations are nothing new.
"Make a realistic bargain that preserves what can be saved of the Columbia and its salmon and its spirit," Blaine Harden wrote in his book, "A River Lost." "Make an agreement and abide by it honestly."
The passage, published in 1996, was a paraphrase of the pragmatic philosophy practiced by the leaders of the tiny Wanapum tribe, centered on the banks of the Columbia near Vantage, Wash. A century earlier, the tribe had been known for spreading a controversial religion built on the idea that white settlers would one day vanish and the river and the region would return to its previous existence.
Over time, the Wanapums learned to live with change. Now, the core of the tribe, three extended families, lives in the shadow of a huge hydroelectric dam through an agreement brokered with a local electrical utility. They are surrounded by land sealed off by the former Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Rex Buck Jr., a Wanapum leader, said in an interview that his people had made concessions to stay on a changing river. One is that while only wild salmon are acceptable for ceremonial purposes, salmon from hatcheries can be eaten for regular meals.
Mr. Buck said he had not heard the president's speech or his salmon joke. But he said he had no expectation that salmon, or the river system, could be addressed quickly through government streamlining. Like many other interests on the Columbia and the Snake, the Wanapums, he said, plan to maintain their claim to them.
"All we're asking is that we live like neighbors," Mr. Buck said. "My grandfather said maybe that's the way the great maker wants it to be."
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