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Babbitt: Fix Economies not Dams

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, March 7, 2005

Former secretary of Interior is confident barriers to fish will be removed

(Barry Kough photo) Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt talks about his tour of north central Idaho and southeastern Washington during a fact-finding trip on farming, transportation and the lower Snake River dams. Bruce Babbitt wants to stop spending money fixing the Snake River dams and use it instead to fix people and economies affected by breaching.

During a visit to Lewiston Sunday, the former secretary of the Interior during the Clinton administration called for removing the dams and shifting $6 billion of salmon recovery funding to farmers, transportation systems and renewable energy.

"I'm quite confident these dams are going to be removed. I think the argument is so strong and it will only get stronger in time," he said. "The reason to do it now is there is money to make people whole."

Babbitt took an aerial tour of the lower Snake and Clearwater rivers Sunday to get a lay of the land. He walked on the levees in his first trip to Lewiston and also visited sites and people on the ground, including wheat farmers and leaders of the Nez Perce Tribe.

He was escorted by representatives of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, and, like them, is convinced removing the dams is the only way to recover the runs to self-sustaining levels.

"I'm certain after 10 years engaged in this, if the dams are not removed wild salmon will go extinct."

Babbitt calls the latest salmon recovery plan, produced under the Bush administration, a pro-extinction policy because it does not recognize the dams as a threat to fish and throws the dam-removal option off the table.

Five years ago, the Clinton administration released its own recovery plan that also avoided dam breaching. But unlike the Bush plan, breaching was kept on the table as a fail-safe measure to be enacted if all other options failed.

Environmental groups and Indian tribes sued the government over that plan, saying it did not do enough to save the fish. The court agreed and federal Judge James Redden of Portland sent the federal government, this time under the direction of the Bush administration, back to the table.

The Bush team declared the dams are part of the river system and only their operation, not their existence, should be considered when coming up with fish-saving alternatives. The government went on to say that the operation of the dams, if changed at a cost of $6 billion over 10 years, does not pose a threat to salmon and steelhead.

Environmentalists and Indian tribes are suing once again, and the case is pending in federal court.

Babbitt counters that the $6 billion could be used to breach the dams and make changes to transportation, irrigation and power-generation systems so nobody is hurt in the process.

"Lets put that mountain of money on the table and see if we can make it productive."

Babbitt would use it to improve railroad transportation and subsidize farmers for the increased cost of shipping grain by railroad. He would build new pumps so irrigators in eastern Washington could continue to use water from the river, and he would help them pay their increased power bills. Lastly, he would invest up to $1.5 billion in wind power and energy conservation to make up for the loss of hydropower generation.

"Stack all that up and my message tomorrow is, look, the money is there to hold all the river users harmless."

Babbitt is scheduled to present his plan to an audience at Whitman Collage in Walla Walla today.

He acknowledged much of the region has yet to conclude, as he has, the dams must go if the fish are to be recovered. But he said now is a good time to talk about breaching because Bush has pledged so much money to save the dams.

"I would hope by joining the discussion of how can we make people whole, we can begin to move this argument. I think the new element is what the administration has done. They have pledged $6 billion. They have given us the capacity to make people whole."

Babbitt pauses and thinks when asked if he regrets that the Clinton administration did not call for dam removal in 2000.

"We had to give them their day. We had to give the (dam) fixers their day and maybe even their day-and-a-half," he said.

Babbitt said he isn't working for anybody when it comes to the Snake River but said he remains involved out of his desire to see a solution to the problem.

"This is the largest piece of unfinished business from my eight-year term as secretary of the Interior."

He continues to live in Washington, D.C., and work on national and international natural resource issues in a legal and consulting framework. He is also finishing a book to be released this fall on what he sees as the next big environmental challenges and their potential solutions.

Eric Barker
Babbitt: Fix Economies not Dams
Lewiston Tribune, March 7, 2005

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