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Crowd at Dam Hearing Clearly Against Breaching

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, February 18, 2000

Columbia Basin residents stand united, telling officials plan tantamount to treason

Score one for dam supporters.

Labor and business leaders, agricultural groups and the hometown newspaper had urged Columbia Basin residents to stand united against those who would mothball Washington's Snake River dams. In response, a passionate crowd told federal officials here Thursday that the idea is -- in the words of one speaker who drew loud applause -- tantamount to treason.

Breaching the dams in an attempt to save salmon would close locks and force barges to stop at Pasco, rather than 140 miles up the Snake in Lewiston. Studies have indicated that would provide an economic boost to Pasco, Richland and Kennewick.

But for all the high-tech jobs created since the government started producing plutonium along the Columbia River, the crowd Thursday showed that the Tri-Cities clings to its agrarian roots. Farmers oppose breaching the dams -- effectively the same as removing them -- because it could drive up their cost for transporting wheat and end irrigation on some 35,000 acres.

"I'm appalled that we live in a society today that values fish over human life," said one Basin City farmer.

The fourth of 15 hearings scheduled on the subject of salmon recovery, the one in Pasco was the first at which a majority of the audience clearly opposed breaching.

About 800 people attended the afternoon session and several hundred more came to a second, evening session. By perhaps a 3-1 margin, the afternoon speakers said the government should find other ways to save salmon.

Abandoning rules that kept previous meetings civil, the nine federal agencies that hosted the hearing allowed clapping during testimony. That led at times to booing. Some audience members snickered and whispered disparaging remarks when Native Americans spoke of their treaty fishing rights and reverence for salmon.

"It seems that the attitude here is much more intense than what I experienced in Clarkston (Wash.)," during a similar hearing last week, said Levi Holt, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe. "There's much more animosity toward Indians and all that we stand for."

Many speakers expressed their distrust of government. Others called on Congress to eliminate funding for any future studies of breaching -- an unlikely move since the government is under federal court order to study all options for saving endangered runs of salmon.

One of the more impassioned speakers, Pasco-area farmer Brenda Alford, drew cheers when she announced that Northwesterners "will not allow the federal government and its drones to take away or even alter our way of life."

Alford predicted civil disobedience and said the debate makes her especially thankful for the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which allows gun ownership. "If you East Coast Yankees and others think that the South put up a fight, you ain't seen nothing yet," she told federal officials. "Because you threatened us, you can consider yourselves threatened."

Alford urged votes for George W. Bush, the only presidential candidate to publicly oppose breaching. Others read popular, anti-breaching messages from Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, and Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., both of whom are expected to seek re-election this year. Gorton, who chairs the committee that would have to approve funding for breaching, promised that no Eastern Washington dams will fall as long as he's in office.

The Clinton administration has not taken a stand on breaching. Indeed, Vice President Al Gore, a presidential hopeful, recently lost the endorsement of Oregon's governor partly because he wouldn't take a stand. But Grant County Commissioner LeRoy Allison testified that breaching is exactly the type of scheme he'd expect from a president who would commit adultery and then lie about it.

"It appears a vocal minority is driving public policy and that policy has caught the heart of the Clinton/Gore administration," Allison said.

Thursday's Tri-Cities Herald included two full-page advertisements urging strong support for dams at the hearing. One ad was funded by unions and the other by unnamed business leaders.

A Herald editorial also urged a united front, saying it would counter "the growing anti-dam din amplified by the droves of environmentalists, American Indians and fishermen who have dominated the hearings so far."

Similar efforts failed to turn the tide in Clarkston last week. Because they have much to lose economically, the town and neighboring Lewiston are considered ground zero for the breaching debate.

Yet testimony at the Clarkston hearing was split between those who favor breaching and those oppose it. Indeed, environmentalists who kept track of speakers claimed a victory.

However, about 180 people testified in private in Clarkston, in a booth with a tape recorder. Janet Sears, of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said most of those people spoke against breaching.

Breaching proponents clearly dominated Spokane, Portland and Astoria, Ore., hearings earlier this month.

With no more hearings scheduled in communities near the dams, it may get no better for those who oppose breaching. Federal officials plan two meetings in Montana, three in southern Idaho and one in Seattle.

In a bow to the wishes of Alaska's governor, the agencies have agreed to expand the number of hearings in that state from two to four. Breaching enjoys strong support in Alaska communities where commercial fishing is every bit as vital as is farming in the Inland Northwest.

Dan Hansen
Crowd at Dam Hearing Clearly Against Breaching
Spokesman Review, February 18, 2000

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