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Snake River Dam Controversy Injects Rare Division in Oregon Delegation

by Brad Cain, Associated Press Writer
August 2000

LOS ANGELES --While the Oregon delegation at the Democratic National Convention is fairly unified on most issues, the Clinton administration's position on dam-breaching isn't one of them.

The administration recently offered its plan for saving Columbia Basin salmon from extinction but did not call for immediately breaching four Snake River dams as Indian tribes and environmentalists had hoped.

Among those most unhappy with the administration's stance is delegate Antone Minthorne, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla.

He says various studies indicate dam-breaching is the single-best thing that could be done to save the salmon, but President Clinton and Vice President Gore have shied away from that for political reasons.

"It's always in the back of my mind," Minthorne says. "I will have the opportunity to talk about it with Gore's Indian liaison while I'm in Los Angeles. I plan to bring it up."

That's not to say that Minthorne or any of the other Oregon delegates are thinking of withholding their support from Gore because of the issue.

Delegate Roxanna Swann of Baker City, a 64-year-old retiree and ardent environmentalist, said she will back Gore even though he will not embrace immediate breaching as a way to save a species that's in "dire straits" as a result of dams.

"I'm going to try to appear to be totally in favor of everything that Gore stands for at this convention," Swann said. "But if I was in the back room with the policy-making boys, I might have something different to say."

Opponents in Congress and elsewhere have warned that breaching could seriously harm the region's economy. Removing the dams would cut off barge transport of grain and other bulk cargo, lower reservoirs below irrigation intake pipes and reduce Northwest electricity supplies by about 4 percent.

Oregon Democratic Chairman Jim Edmunson said Gore is taking the prudent approach to the issue, especially in view of the fact scientists are split over what affect-dam breaching might have on the salmon problem.

"Dam-breaching might sound like a splashy solution but the last thing we want to do is to make a political decision about salmon," Edmunson said.

Gore's campaign spokesman in Oregon, David Chai, noted that Gore has said he might eventually embrace dam-breaching, while Republican George W. Bush has flatly ruled it out regardless of what scientific studies show.

"Vice President Gore plans to bring all the parties to the table" to work out a salmon restoration plan, Chai said. "George Bush's stand is not leadership. He's alienated groups that need to be part of the discussion."

The most recent polling in Oregon shows Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader backed by 7 percent of voters, prompting worries by Gore's supporters that environmentalists who normally would back the Democrat are now in Nader's camp.

Shawn Cantrell, northwest regional director of Friends of the Earth, said Gore "has shaky support in many corners of the environmental community" because of issues such as dam-breaching.

"Certainly that is one of the driving issues in this region for environmentalists," Cantrell said. "Considering whether to support Al Gore or how aggressively to work for a Gore campaign is riding in large degree on his commitment or lack of commitment"

Swann, the Democratic delegate from Baker City, thinks the dam-breaching issue could end up hurting Gore in Oregon. "It could push some of the Democrats over to Ralph Nader. I certainly do worry about that," she said.

Brad Cain
Snake River Dam Controversy Injects Rare Division in Oregon Delegation
, August 2000

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