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Breaching Hearings Draw 9,000

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, February 17, 2000

Nearly 30,000 submit opinions on what should happen to Snake River dams

Whatever the fate of Snake River dams, no one can claim the government didn't give citizens a chance to speak on the subject.

Nearly 9,000 people attended 15 recently completed federal hearings on salmon recovery and the future of the four Washington dams.

About 30,000 people submitted testimony, either in person, in writing, through e-mail or via cassette recordings.

"I have never seen an issue that drew as much testimony as this one," said Janet Sears, a spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Portland.

Perry Gruber, a spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration, said the agency has not received so much attention since 1982, when the Washington Public Power Supply System defaulted on $2.25 billion in bonds.

Not that the feds were surprised by the interest.

Breaching Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams has been the subject of intense debate and media coverage. Breaching earthen sections of the dams would allow the river to flow unimpeded, stilling the dams' turbines and draining the reservoirs behind them.

Many scientists say it's the surest way to restore salmon runs on the Snake River. Many farmers, politicians, and business and labor leaders say it would wreck the economy.

Activist groups on both sides have staged events in Northwest communities and Washington, D.C. Virtually no politician in the region, including presidential candidates, has escaped the issue.

Besides, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent $55,000 advertising the meetings, which were conducted in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

No one has tallied all costs of the hearings to the fisheries service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, BPA and six other agencies. Hiring off-duty police officers to augment BPA's own security team cost about $10,000, Gruber said. Each agency had to pay travel expenses for decision-makers and support staff.

For those keeping track -- and many activist groups are -- dam supporters claimed more than half the seats at meetings in Pasco and Clarkston, Wash. They appeared out-gunned at every other meeting, whether by environmentalists in Portland and Seattle; commercial fishermen in Alaska and Astoria, Ore.; or by farmers protective of their water rights in southern Idaho.

But that only takes into account the people willing to speak publicly in a crowded room, not those who found other ways to testify. The agencies have hired a consultant to compile all the comments into a coherent study.

Col. Eric Mogren, deputy Northwest commander for the Corps of Engineers, said there were a few pro-dam groups whose distrust for the process led them to boycott the meetings. And, he said, there were a few environmentalists who traveled from hearing to hearing, saying essentially the same thing at each.

One woman boasted that the hearing in Juneau, Alaska, was her 11th, Mogren said. That meant she had missed only three, with one remaining.

"Trying to tally up (whether) the region is pro-dam or anti-dam is very difficult to do," Mogren said. "It misses the point, anyway."

The hearings were not a referendum, but an opportunity for the agencies to hear people's concerns, Mogren said. The agencies also were listening for information they might have overlooked in various studies about salmon recovery.

Mogren and other federal officials said they were impressed with the civility of the crowds and the depth of their knowledge. Several noted that nearly everyone expressed a desire to save salmon, but few expressed a willingness to give up anything.

Save the salmon but don't cut harvests was the message in Alaska. Save the salmon but don't take more water from farmers or restrict land use was the message in Idaho. Save the salmon but don't breach the dams was the message in Clarkston.

In fact, everyone is going to have to give up something, whether or not the dams are breached, said Brian Gorman, Seattle spokesman for the fisheries service.

"We got where we are with salmon because as a region, we were oblivious to what we were doing to the ecosystem," Gorman said. "We're going to have to change that if we're going to save the salmon."

Of the hundreds of speakers he heard at five meetings, Mogren said the one who stands out was a man who listened in Clarkston, Wash., before testifying in his own community. Like nearly everyone at the Astoria hearing, the commercial fisherman spoke in favor of breaching, but said he empathized with the concerns of farmers and pulp workers.

"He took the time to listen to the other side of the issue," Mogren said. "That impresses me."

Dan Hansen
Breaching Hearings Draw 9,000
Spokesman Review, February 17, 2000

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