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Political Cowardice

Jeff Curtis, Trout Unlimited
Letter to Editor - Wood River Journal - August 23, 2000

Hidden deep in the news stories on the federal government's decision to put in place environmental and technological fixes in an effort to save the wild Snake River salmon, instead of removing four dams on the lower Snake River salmon, instead of removing four dams on the lower Snake river, was a quote that should be lost on no one. When asked about these risky and uncertain fixes, George Frampton, the White House's top environmental expert, said that dam removal was in fact "the single most beneficial thing we could do" to save these fish.

The draft biological statement that accompanied the federal government's decision supported Frampton's statement. In it was a passage that said that under this scheme of so-called techno- and environmental fixes, the dams would continue to be allowed to kill up to 88 percent of juvenile fall chinook that attempt to navigate these manmade masses of concrete and earth.

If the four lower Snake dams do kill nearly 90 percent of the young fall chinook salmon, and if the federal government's expert on saving salmon truly believes that dam removal is the surest way to save the fish, then why are these dams being allowed to stand? In these same news stories, Frampton was quick to also point out that dam removal was an impossiblity at this time because of a lack of support among the region's members of Congress. That lack of support, combined with the Clinton administration's lack of courage in overriding the opposition to dam removal by regional political leaders like Washington State Senator Slade Gorton, does not bode well for the salmon or for the citizens of the Pacific Northwest.

The cruel irony of this decision is that when these politicians and federal policy makers finally come to the realization that, in order to save the salmon the dams must be removed, it will likely be too late. A Trout Unlimited-spoonsored study completed by a well-respected biologist last year found that if conditions don't change, wild Snake River spring and summer chinook could be functionally extinct by 2017. Simple math tells us that the five to ten years the federal government has said they will keep the techno-fixes in place, coupled with the seven to nine years it will take to dismantle the lower Snake dams, brings the salmon right to the edge of extinction or, in a worst-case scenario, actual extinction.

But it is not just the salmon that will suffer from this cruel play of politics; it is also the citizens and taxpayers of the Pacific Northwest. We have been forced to deal with the decades-long controversy surrounding efforts to save the salmon and now will continue to have to do so as this debate shifts to the courtrooms. We will be the ones who may be forced to pay compensation to Native American tribes for the loss of their treaty-protected fishing rights -- a bill that could run to billions of dollars. We, like other Americans, will see our tax bills increase to pay for risky and uncertain salmon-saving efforts like fish barging and continued modifications to the four dams.

It has been said that in this day and age political courage is in short supply. Nowhere is that more evident than in the decision of the federal government and the members of Congress not to support the one fix they know will save the salmon -- removal of the four lower Snake River dams. Unfortunately, once again it will be the salmon and the public -- not the politicians -- who will be forced to bear the costs of this lack of political courage.

Jeff Curtis Western Conservation Director, Trout Unlimited
Political Cowardice
Wood River Journal August 23, 2000

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