Ducking on Dams Could Cost Goreby Jeff Mapes, The Oregonian staff
The Oregonian, May 8, 2000
Critics say it's time for the presidential candidate
to end his silence on the Snake River salmon recovery controversy
The Northwest's toughest environmental issue -- the proposed breaching of four Snake River dams -- will intersect with the presidential race when Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush visit Oregon for the May 16 primary.
What's unclear is whether it will be a one-sided discussion.
Bush, tentatively set to stop in Oregon on the day of the primary, will undoubtedly once again denounce breaching as a foolhardy gamble with the region's economy. Supporters say they expect the Texas governor to make a big point of his support for the dams, just as he did before he won the Washington primary in February.
Gore also won his party primary in Washington. But the vice president was the only major candidate to avoid saying publicly a single word about whether the Snake River dams should be breached to boost endangered salmon runs.
While a platoon of federal agencies studies the idea under the watchful eyes of the Clinton administration, Gore has carefully stayed quiet on an issue that has divided many of his Northwest supporters.
Now, even many of those sympathetic to the vice president say it's time for Gore to get out front on the issue -- particularly since there seems to be a growing sense of division among the federal agencies on what to do about the dams.
"Al Gore has ducked this thing for too long," said Donald Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "He has to step up and provide some leadership."
Gore campaign officials have said the vice president doesn't want to second-guess the federal studies into dam breaching and wants a solution that will protect both the fish and the region's economy.
"He's interested in following the science and taking a thoughtful approach," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who chairs the Gore campaign in Oregon and has talked to the vice president about the dams.
Wyden said he did not yet know if Gore will address the future of the dams on his visit to Oregon, tentatively set for Friday, but that at some point, "He's going to have a lot to say about it."
The fate of the four Eastern Washington dams could be a pivotal environmental issue in what's shaping up as an unusually competitive presidential contest in the Northwest. Recent polls in Oregon and Washington show Bush and Gore running virtually even -- a big change from the last three presidential elections in which Republicans conceded the two states to the Democrats.
Bush's stance clear Bush wasted no time staking out a clear position on the dams. Last summer, at the urging of Republican Sens. Slade Gorton of Washington and Gordon Smith of Oregon, Bush announced on visits to both states that the dams ought to stay.
"I believe we can save the fish," he said in Portland last July, "but we don't have to tear down the dams to do it."
Bush even used the issue to help beat rival Republican John McCain in the Washington primary. After McCain told reporters the option of dam-breaching should be kept alive, the Bush campaign swung into action. Bush pronounced his support for the dams at a hastily scheduled rally in Pasco, and his campaign launched radio ads denouncing McCain for even considering the idea.
Bush supporters said his stance has helped bring him a relatively strong degree of support in the region.
Bush's stand "has really resonated in the rural counties," said Dan Lavey, a Portland political consultant. Although those counties normally go Republican anyway, Lavey said it has helped cement rural opposition to Gore.
But Wyden said Bush's position could come back to hurt him among many Oregon swing voters who are concerned about the environment.
"The salmon don't stand much chance under Gov. Bush," charged Wyden, adding that Bush has offered "a throwaway sentence on the dams that is both premature and a vast oversimplification" of the issue.
Still, it's Gore who has found himself walking a tightrope on an issue that splits his political base.
On one side are many labor unions and some of the key Democrats in the Northwest, such as Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who oppose breaching. On the other side are the tribes and an environmental community that has been urging Gore for months in full-page newspaper ads to take a stand on the dams.
Bill Arthur, the Sierra Club's Northwest regional director, said he doesn't expect Gore to say now whether the dams should be breached. But Arthur, who is on an Environmentalists for Gore committee in Washington state, said the vice president should publicly insist that the bureaucrats quickly settle on a course of action.
"The federal apparatus is confused and in disarray, and that is when you need political leadership," said Arthur.
In recent weeks, the situation has been murky. One news report said the Clinton administration blocked the Army Corps of Engineers from coming out in opposition to breaching. The Environmental Protection Agency has complained that the federal review ignored clean-water issues. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says breaching is the best option.
And the top regional official of the National Marine Fisheries Service floated the option of leaving the dams in place for five to 10 years while other salmon recovery proposals are tried.
"Salmon summit" idea Sampson said Gore should consider the idea of a "salmon summit" that would bring the region together to work on a solution. The same approach worked politically for Bill Clinton in 1992 when he promised during a visit to Oregon to hold a timber summit to settle on a strategy for dealing with the spotted owl.
Both Clinton and Gore then presided over such a gathering the next year in Portland.
Not everyone agrees with that strategy. Bruce Lovelin of the Columbia River Alliance, a business and farm group opposed to breaching, said he's glad Gore has kept a low profile on the issue.
"Quite honestly, we think he's taking a responsible approach," said Lovelin. "The scientific jury is still out . . . The last thing we need is more fuel added to this debate."
However, Paddy McGuire, a former Clinton aide in the Interior Department who has helped the Gore campaign in Oregon, said the vice president's continued silence is no longer a political plus.
"If I was advising him on the politics of this stuff -- which I'm not -- I'd say bite the bullet on this and get it over with," said McGuire, now chief of staff to Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury. "Because right now, nobody is happy."
Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber is the only major elected official in the Northwest to advocate dam breaching. In January, as he endorsed former Sen. Bill Bradley for president, he accused the Clinton-Gore administration of having "taken a hike" on salmon issues.
Since then, Gore sewed up the nomination, and Kitzhaber has agreed to be vice chairman of his Oregon campaign.
At this point, Republicans are continuing to feed the idea that Gore will support breaching once he gets through the election.
"I think Gore would try to take them out," said Oregon Sen. Smith. "He owes us an answer, and he hasn't given us one."
Environmentalists also fret about what Gore would do as president. Chris Zimmer, the spokesman for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, said he's worried that Gore would go along with delaying any breaching decision for five to 10 years.
"I don't think it's as dangerous to be a dam-removal supporter as (Gore) thinks it is," Zimmer said. He said the vice president just "seems to be trying to get beyond November."
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