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Breaching Foes Turn Out in Force

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, February 11, 2000

Lewiston, Clarkston residents line up to testify against plan to save salmon

Torsten Kjellsrand - The Spokesman Review Thursday was D-Day in two communities that consider themselves in a fight for the future.

The towns, split only by the Snake River and a state line, left no doubt to visitors that they are united on the most contentious environmental issue in the region.

"Save Dams," declared the sign at Betty's World of Travel in Lewiston.

"We oppose breaching," announced another sign, at a tool rental company.

"Stand Up and Be Counted" for dams, urged the readerboard at Taco Time.

And over the radio, a slick commercial started with machine-gun fire as the announcer recalled the day Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy. It's D-Day again, the announcer told his audience in Lewiston and neighboring Clarkston, "Our last chance to save our dams."

Those were the messages that greeted officials from nine federal agencies who converged on Clarkston for a hearing about the future of threatened salmon and steelhead. It was the message given to Idaho fishing guides, Nez Perce tribal members, out-of-town college students and others who contend the future would be brighter if the dams were bypassed.

The discussion was supposed to include the subjects of habitat restoration, hatchery output and commercial salmon harvest.

But those issues were broached only as they related to the proposal for mothballing the four Snake River dams in Washington. The dams, built in the 1960s and '70s, turned Lewiston and Clarkston into the most inland of Pacific Ocean ports. Without the slack water created by the dams, some 70 rapids would return, ship-moving locks would be worthless and barges no longer could carry the mainstays of the region's economy: wheat and paper products.

Without the dams, famine almost surely would make a comeback, many scientists who have studied the issue say.

People here are worried about their jobs, so worried, in fact, that at least one worker from the Potlatch Corp. showed up at 5 a.m. to reserve a chance to speak nine hours later. Other people started lining up behind him at 8 a.m. The line was perhaps 600 people strong by the time the Lewis and Clark Convention Center opened its doors at noon.

By the end of the day, the host agencies had given out 1,600 information packets.

More than half the crowd wore yellow ribbons provided by breaching opponents. Many carried signs reading "Breaching, Hell No," "Damit, Save Our Town," and a crowd favorite, "Fish Just Wanna Have Dams."

No one testified that salmon are unimportant. Instead, Potlatch workers and business leaders told their federal audience to eliminate fishing, kill some sea lions and other predators, and do whatever else it takes to bring back the salmon. Just don't mess with the dams.

Talk of breaching is every bit as treasonous as taking out the dams with a bomb, one speaker said. A few others called the idea a socialist scheme.

The speakers included city and county officials from both states, and several Idaho legislators.

"Idaho categorically will not support breaching the Snake River dams," said Lt. Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican candidate for Congress.

But breachers had a strong presence, too. As they did during a similar hearing Tuesday in Spokane, many wore stickers provided by environmental groups, reading "We Need Salmon" and "These Dams Don't Make Sense."

Among them was Horace Axtell, a Nez Perce elder who said he was offended by the references to war.

"I was in World War II. I had a lot of friends shed blood and lost relatives in D-Day," Axtell said. "It hurts me to hear this talk."

A younger tribal member challenged the audience to think as a community.

"When these dams go away, there will be challenges and we'll face them together," he said. "When the salmon come back, we'll enjoy that together, as a community."

In a lounge adjacent to the conference center, a small group drank beer and watched the hearing on a big-screen television. "Go to hell," one woman said to the television as an environmentalist testified.

Such incivility was not allowed in the hearing, where the moderator squelched even applause. It might lead to booing, she scolded, an explanation that was readily accepted by a polite, if passionate audience.

Outside, a few millworkers argued with a few environmentalists and fishing guides. Their words were spoken forcefully, but never threateningly.

Mostly, though, like-minded people stuck together.

"How about `junk science?"' a young man in a ponytail asked two friends, as he polished the three-minute written statement he planned to read.

"`Corporate junk science' is better," one of his friends said.

He later settled on "industry-funded junk science" to describe studies that contend breaching the dams won't bring salmon back to Idaho.

Off in a corner, three men with yellow ribbons stood listening and nodding, as a fourth drilled his right index finger into his opposite palm.

"There comes a time when you just have to say,`enough,"' the man said.

Dan Hansen
Breaching Foes Turn Out in Force
Spokesman Review, February 11, 2000

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