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Despite Decision, Focus Still on Dams

by Jim Barnett
The Oregonian, July 20, 2000

The White House salmon plan will keep Snake River dams for now, triggering new debate

WASHINGTON -- A federal judge likely will decide whether a new federal plan for salmon recovery passes legal muster. But a White House decision not to breach four Snake River dams already is unleashing a new scramble to win in the court of public opinion.

Under a court order, federal scientists have spent five years deciding whether breaching is the best way to save endangered salmon. Some have hinted at their conclusions, but on Wednesday a top White House official made it official: The dams are staying put for now.

George T. Frampton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, released a statement to a Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee outlining a recovery plan that would postpone any breaching for at least a decade.

"Dam breaching is one step among many that holds promise for recovering the Snake River runs," Frampton said. "But it is also clear that breaching the Snake River dams may not be essential to recovering these runs and probably would not be sufficient."

Restoring endangered salmon runs is a popular goal throughout the Northwest. But how best to achieve it -- by breaching dams to restore free-flowing rivers or by pursuing other means -- has become one of the most politically charged questions ever to face the region's residents.

Frampton outlined a recovery plan that will rely on smaller, cumulative steps to restore fish habitat and reduce mortality. But it does little to lessen the political appeal of dams as a symbol of the struggle between economic growth and environmental protection.

In fact, Frampton's statement prompted an outcry from all quarters in the salmon-recovery debate and pushed the issue back into the presidential campaign, at least for the moment.

"Make no mistake, it's a delay to give Vice President Al Gore cover until after the election," said Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who has made saving the dams a centerpiece of his own campaign for re-election this fall.

The fate of the dams is a tough political call for Gore, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Although environmentalists want the dams out, another key Democratic constituency -- organized labor -- needs them to support union jobs at aluminum smelters and other factories.

So far, Gore has steered clear of taking a firm position. But his equivocation has proved troublesome. Before a recent visit to Oregon, Gore was chastised by Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber for failing to take the initiative. On Wednesday, the presumed Republican nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, seized on Frampton's remarks as a new opportunity to draw out Gore's position.

"I say we can use technology to save the salmon without leaving the door open to destroying these dams," Bush said in a statement released Wednesday. "Al Gore wants the door left open to their destruction."

Gore, in a statement released by his campaign Wednesday afternoon, said that the recovery plan "provides a solid foundation for restoring the salmon while strengthening the economy of the Pacific Northwest."

He added: "If sufficient progress toward recovery is not being made, we may then have no choice but to pursue options such as dam breaching. But we must first exhaust all reasonable alternatives."

Gorton and other Republican senators who expressed skepticism about the administration's recovery plan said it might quell the question of dam breaching for now, but it leaves open the possibility in the future.

A key piece of the plan is establishing specific targets for returning fish runs, according to Frampton's statement. If those targets aren't met, the question of dam breaching would be brought back to Congress.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said he wanted to question Frampton about how the targets would be set. If they are impossibly high, the recovery plan would amount to little more than a back-door route to breaching, he said.

"That mechanism is where the details are -- and where the devil may be hiding," Smith said in an interview.

By the same token, Smith said, the administration's decision not to breach the dams might be a sign that Gore wants to brush the issue aside as quickly as possible, particularly to head off an insurgent presidential campaign by Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

"I think they're recognizing political reality," Smith said. "It's a lose-lose for Al Gore."

The issue also could pit Northwest politicians against each other. A key part of the new fish recovery plan calls for flushing greater amounts of water down the Snake. Much of that water could come from Idaho, although an Idaho senator played down that possibility.

"This is an issue of river management more than river flows," said Sen. Larry Craig, a Republican.

Smith had planned to chair a hearing Wednesday to hear Frampton give his statement and take questions. Scheduled to join him was Will Stelle, regional chief of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who crafted the recovery plan. But the hearing was postponed after members quarreled over a separate issue.

The fisheries service is scheduled to release its recovery plan July 27 along with a document called a "biological opinion" that gives the agency's assessment of prospects for recovery of endangered runs. Final drafts are expected in September.

Release of the biological opinion, in theory, could be the end of the dam-breaching question, said Brian Gorman, an agency spokesman in Seattle. But environmentalists who object to the administration's decision are almost certain to sue the agency to have it reconsider.

Michelle Cole of The Oregonian contributed to this report.
Jim Barnett
Despite Decision, Focus Still on Dams
The Oregonian, July 20, 2000

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