GOP Stressing its Pro-dam Stand;
by Dionne Searcey
When Sen. Slade Gorton stood before fellow Republicans at their state convention last weekend, he drew the biggest cheers when he restated his opposition to tearing down dams.
"Let me be crystal clear: So long as I am your United States senator, the dams will remain in place," Gorton said.
But his two Democratic opponents, Deborah Senn and Maria Cantwell, have been noticeably vague, prompting criticism from environmentalists who believe dam removal would help restore salmon runs.
It's a touchy issue in statewide races in Washington, forcing some Democrats to use delicate language to say something but then nothing at all. Most, including Cantwell and Senn, say they want to wait for scientific studies to provide evidence on whether dam breaching would benefit salmon.
Supporting dam removal could alienate voters in heavily Republican, conservative communities of Eastern Washington that rely on irrigation and hydroelectric power. Tearing down dams, on the other hand, has become a popular cause for Puget Sound environmentalists.
Oregon pollster Tim Hibbitts said polls conducted in the past show most Washington voters, regardless of where they live, oppose dam breaching. "That might explain why most of the Democrats are running from the issue."
"The longer that these folks can delay having to take a stand on dams, the better for them," Hibbitts said.
Meanwhile, Gorton is turning the issue into a metaphoric power struggle between local residents and the federal government, hoping the debate will galvanize supporters on both sides of the mountains.
"I draw the line at destroying the ability of people to make a living and destroying the physical infrastructures that have been built by the many generations and imaginations of Washingtonians," Gorton said at his campaign kickoff in front of Rocky Reach Dam near Wenatchee last month.
An Oregon Republican has taken on a similar theme. U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith promised to chain himself to any dam that is scheduled for demolition.
Democrats, on the other hand, aren't as bold.
Vice President Al Gore says he is waiting for scientific reports, including one due in July from the National Marine Fisheries Service, before forming an opinion. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington opposes dam breaching for now but has a wait-and-see attitude about it, according to her spokesman.
The one Democrat who has come out against dam removal - Gov. Gary Locke - says often that "extinction is not an option," but still faces picketing by environmentalists, some of them dressed as salmon.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has become one of the most high-profile Democrats in the Pacific Northwest to embrace dam removal. While he firmly believes taking down dams will help salmon, his conviction isn't as politically risky as it is for others; Kitzhaber isn't up for re-election this year.
Some local environmental organizers say they are disappointed that few Democrats in this state will state a clear opinion on one of their core issues. They think most dams, including the Snake River dams in southeastern Washington, harm fish runs, hurt water quality and prevent the flow of nutrients down streams.
Dams are particularly sensitive in the U.S. Senate race where Senn and Cantwell are competing for the Democratic nomination.
Chris Zimmer, a spokesman for Save Our Wild Salmon, a group made up of environmentalists and commercial and sport fishermen, says both candidates are using "a duck-and-cover strategy" when they say scientific information available now isn't complete.
He says science is already pointing toward removing the dams.
The agriculture community, however, worries that dam removal will choke their orchards and turn fertile farmland into a desert. They like what Gorton has to say.
"Slade has been in the forefront fighting for us," said Ed Thiele, an Okanogan County commissioner and a Democrat. "Over here, we've got to be able to cut trees and have water for our farms and our towns."
Environmental activists see the Senate race as an opportunity for either Cantwell or Senn, two candidates who are similar ideologically, to distinguish themselves.
But the candidates have other strategies in mind.
"We need to unite the state on that and not make this an issue for divisive politics and not pit East against West," Cantwell said.
"I wish people would spend one-tenth of the time they've been spending on the protecting-our-dams debate instead on focusing how to diversify the economy and get high-wage jobs in other parts of the state because that is critical."
She and Senn believe Gorton is trying to split the state on the issue.
"(He) is adamant about a position without listening to what the experts have to say," Senn said. "This is a highly complex issue, and it's important to listen to the expertise, and not all of the expertise is in."
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