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Dam Plan for Salmon is Placed on Hold

by Craig Welch and John Hendren
Seattle Times - July 20, 2000

The first formal White House announcement on the future of Snake River dams slammed the door on any swift resolution to the breaching debate.

The Clinton administration yesterday said it would be at least eight years - if ever - before government agencies would ask Congress to authorize removing four dams on the Snake River to help restore wild salmon runs.

In a statement prepared for a congressional committee, a top administration official said the government planned to try other approaches before it would consider such a dramatic gesture.

"Dam breaching is one step among many that holds promise for recovering Snake River runs," said George Frampton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality. "But it is also clear that breaching the Snake River dams may not be essential . . . and probably would not be sufficient. And it would do nothing for the other listed stocks on the main stem of the Columbia."

The announcement, portions of which had been leaked for months, was a prelude to the upcoming unveiling of the National Marine Fisheries Service's overall recovery strategy for Columbia River salmon stocks.

Frampton was to share some ingredients of that strategy at a Senate subcommittee yesterday, but the meeting was canceled. The White House released his statement anyway.

The strategy "will not subscribe to the premise championed by some that the region faces a simple, binary choice between breaching and not breaching these dams, and that salmon recovery hinges on that decision," Frampton said.

But he acknowledged the White House would proceed with engineering plans and economic assessments of dam breaching in case other efforts fail.

His statements were quickly dismissed as stalling.

The Sierra Club dubbed the move a "punt" that would let fish die in the meantime. Trout Unlimited called it a "death sentence" for wild salmon. Idaho Rivers United accused the White House of avoiding a decision until after the election to help Vice President Al Gore's presidential bid.

Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, agreed but said the administration intends to move quietly toward breaching dams.

Gorton, who heads a key Senate appropriations committee, promised to withhold money for dam breaching as long as he's in office.

Republican contender George W. Bush has come out in favor of retaining dams. Gore has said he's waiting for more information before reaching an opinion.

Gore didn't budge yesterday. "As president, I will bring all the parties and stake holders together," he said during a campaign visit to Missouri. "I am going to . . . come up with a solution that respects the environment and does not cause an upheaval in the economy."

Will Stelle, regional director of the fisheries service, said yesterday that the four dams in southeastern Washington - Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite - will remain while the government seeks recovery efforts that give the "biggest bang for the buck." Four wild stocks of Snake River salmon and eight from the Columbia are listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Frampton's testimony offered only rough outlines of a recovery strategy. But administration officials have previously said it would include a five-year habitat-restoration initiative in 12 key watersheds of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

The plan would invite the region's government leaders, businesses and residents to work to avoid dam removal by spilling water over dams, increasing stream flows and improving water quality, among other things.

Environmentalists say any biological opinion that does not make dam removal an immediate priority ignores what science says is the best short-term answer for fish. Some are likely to file a lawsuit, claiming the service has not met its obligations under the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws.

Information from Seattle Times news services is included in this report.
Craig Welch and John Hendren
Dam Plan for Salmon is Placed on Hold
Seattle Times, July 20, 2000

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