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Commentaries and editorials

"Reject the Guiltless Complacency"

by Governor John Kitzhaber
American Fisheries Society , February 19, 2000

Good Afternoon. It's an honor to appear before the American Fisheries Society which, for years, has provided such distinguished service in the cause of sustainable fisheries management.

It is also quite fitting that a public official, such as myself, should appear before a group of scientists in what may be seen as a symbolic "hand-off" regarding a challenge of great importance to all of us here -- and, indeed, to all of the citizens throughout the Northwest.

That challenge is to restore a healthy ecosystem to the Columbia River Basin and recover the salmon of the Columbia -- once the greatest runs on the face of the earth.

Like all significant environmental challenges, our response here must be a combination of good science and good public policy.

As to my reference to a "hand-off" is a recognition that you -- as fisheries scientists -- have done your job.

You have provided the science that the region needs to begin to address our Columbia Basin challenge.

That is not to say that the science is perfect, or that we now know all that we will ever need to know, to inform our efforts. But we will never have perfectly accurate or complete science and we can no longer use that as an excuse for inaction.

There are those who continue to believe that science will give us the answer. It won’t. What science can give us is a range of options, each of which carries varying degrees of economic and ecological risk. Science can describe the risks inherent in various policy options -- not eliminate them.

In the end, the answer will be a political one -- informed by good science -- but based on a set of values and on the degree of economic and ecological risks the region is willing to accept. It is time that we shoulder our responsibilities and develop a blueprint for action.

To do so, we must engage the citizens of the Northwest. Engage them in making clear what is at stake in the Columbia and what our goal must be in response to this challenge. Engaging them concerning the alternatives we have to achieve that goal. Engaging them in describing the trade-offs inherent in each option. And that will require an unprecedented level of political leadership and collaboration throughout the region.

Let’s start by discussing what is at stake in the Columbia Basin. In a very real sense, the stakes can be summed up in the following questions:

To me there is but one answer to these questions -- we must. We must save our wild salmon; we must strive to meet the standards of our federal environmental statutes and the Northwest Power Act; we must honor our obligations to the tribes.

In short, we must restore a healthy, functioning ecosystem to the Columbia Basin. Only then will we have hope of restoring abundant runs of salmon and the clean, cool water that for centuries characterized the Columbia River. To me, this is not just about doing what the law requires -- it is about doing what we know to be right.

A functioning ecosystem -- one that can provide for the needs of both humans and animals -- demonstrates our willingness to live our lives in a sustainable fashion; a willingness to take the legacy we have been handed and to pass it on the next generation of westerners.

But if our salmon runs are not healthy, then our watersheds are not healthy. And if our watersheds are not healthy, then we are putting at risk our future and that of our children and grandchildren. A highly degraded ecosystem -- which is where we are headed today -- represents a decision to mortgage the legacy with which we have been blessed for our own short-term benefit. I believe that we are better than that.

These environmental laws and treaties -- which seem at once so arcane and so detailed -- constitute the means by which we seek to connect our past, our present, and our future. And at the heart of this debate lies one question that each and every one of us must answer: are we willing to honor that connection?

I believe that we are. I believe that the people of the Northwest are ready to meet this challenge -- and our goal must be nothing short of a functioning ecosystem in the Columbia Basin. We must accept no less.

That brings us to the question of the alternatives available to achieve our goal and the trade-offs that are involved. The recently unveiled multi-species framework process -- spearheaded by the Northwest Power Planning Council -- illustrates the choices before us more clearly than perhaps any other study.

As you know, the framework analyzed a range of seven alternatives that might achieve the goal of ecosystem restoration and salmon recovery. Each alternative addresses, in varying degrees, the damage to the ecosystem caused by the so-called “4-H’s”: the hydroelectric system, harvest policies, habitat restoration and hatchery practices.

At one end of the range is Alternative One, which essentially returns the river to a free-flowing natural state. This alternative involves breaching the four Lower Snake River dams and also breaching McNary Dam and John Day Dam on the mainstream. It involves intensive habitat restoration on both public and private land and the elimination of hatchery production. It also involves the curtailment of all salmon harvest except tribal harvest.

At the other end of the range is Alternative Seven, which essentially manages the river to maximize economic benefits. This option includes increased power production, increased irrigation, and increased fishing under scientific management.

Alternative One offers the least environmental risk in terms of the ecosystem and salmon restoration, but the greatest human risk in terms of the economic impact on the region. Alternative Seven, on the other hand, offers the least human risk, but the greatest environmental risk.

The alternatives between One and Seven fall somewhere along this risk spectrum with alternatives Three through Five having the greatest balance between environmental and economic risk.

An examination of the differences between Alternative Three and Alternative Five best illustrates the choices that face us as a region. Both alternatives yield significantly greater salmon returns than the status quo and of approximately the same magnitude. Alternative Three yields 2.8 times more salmon than current returns. Alternative Five produces 2.5 times more salmon than current returns. (The range runs from 1.5 times current returns in Alternative Seven to 2.5 times in Alternative Two).

Both Alternative Three and Alternative Five amend harvest and hatchery practices and involve habitat restoration activities. The two differences between these two alternatives lie in how they address the hydrosystem, the intensity of habitat restoration activities, which I recommended, and the nature of harvest and hatchery policies.

Let’s start with the most controversial difference between Alternative Three and Alternative Five -- dam breaching. Alternative Five is a breaching strategy involving the four Lower Snake River dams. Alternative Five can be characterized as an “everything but breaching strategy”.

Dam breaching has acquired a life of its own in the Northwest -- dominating the political debate, the news stories, and the editorials almost to the exclusion of everything else. It is important, therefore, that we put this issue into context and bring it into perspective.

Dam breaching alone -- while it will certainly help some runs of salmon -- will not necessarily restore them. Regardless of whether we reach a breaching strategy (such as Alternative Three) or a non-breaching strategy (such as Alternative Five) we must also come to terms with other steps that will be necessary:

The hydroelectric system

All dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers (whether any are breached or not) must operate in a way that addresses dissolved gas and temperature problems and which comply to the Clean Water Act.

We must increase flows to help fish move down stream.

Where appropriate, we must improve fish passage by using bypass collectors and turbine screens. And, as turbines are scheduled for replacement, they must be upgraded with so-called “fish-friendly” turbines.


We must move aggressively to restore degraded habitat. While some progress has been made, our ongoing water management and agricultural practices, urban uses, and timber harvests continue to add sediment and other pollutants to rivers and streams. This raises water temperature and dries up critical spawning and rearing habitat.

To reverse this will require a coordinated and cooperative effort between state, federal, and tribal governments and private landowners to develop and implement a comprehensive program with habitat protection and restoration. This must be based both on incentives for action and on enforcement for our existing regulatory framework.


We have come to understand that the historic promise of hatcheries to replace natural production lost to economic development has been largely a myth. The tools of artificial production must be immediately recast to meet this new challenge.

Hatcheries that are used to supplement and restore threatened and endangered salmon stocks must be operated on a scale, and in a manner, that reflects the essentially experimental nature of this undertaking.

Further, hatcheries used to augment fishing should, in both mission and location, move away from mainstream fisheries that impact listed and other weak stocks in favor of terminal fisheries located in the mouth and tributaries of the Columbia River.


Over the past decades, harvest rates have been steadily decreased to a point where, today, harvest occurs only at a fraction of historic levels.

In fact, for many of the wild salmon stocks -- such as the spring and summer Chinook and Sockeye -- no in-river harvest has occurred for over three decades.

Northwest Native Americans have been especially hurt by these reductions. Salmon fishing for them is more than just an activity or even a way of life -- it is truly spiritual.

Yet, further reductions must be achieved in fall Chinook if we are to achieve our goal.

Yet, in spite of these recovery strategies (all of which must be undertaken in some degree), the public debate remains stalled on the question of whether or not to breach the four dams on the Lower Snake River. You would think, given all the focus on this issue, that breaching is the “silver bullet” that alone could allow us to reach the goal of a functioning ecosystem and abundant salmon runs.

But you know, and I know, that breaching the Snake River dams alone will not get the job done. Why then all the focus on dam breaching? The answer lies in the fact that the breaching debate has become a debate that is more about symbols than about solutions.

On the environmental side, dams are symbols of man’s subjugation of the mighty Columbia River and of the ecological degradation that has flowed from that subjugation. And thus, removal of the dams becomes an end in itself -- set apart from the effect on overall salmon recovery or watershed health.

On the other side, dams are symbols of the economic benefits which have flowed from the taming of the Columbia River. And thus, their removal threatens the economic interests because it legitimizes a discussion of the environmental cost with which these economic benefits have been purchased.

So if removing the four Lower Snake River dams is not a “silver bullet”, and should not be an end in itself, what is its importance? The answer lies within the numerous scientific studies undertaken over the past several years for the purpose of informing our efforts to recover salmon, steelhead and other fish and wildlife in the Columbia Basin.

While partisans and the press dwell on the differences in these studies, the conclusions and information that are common to virtually all of them are very significant. This information includes the fact that:

Again, let me use Alternative Three and Alternative Five to illustrate this point. While Alternative Five does not breach the dams, it does a number of other things which are not contemplated under Alternative Three. For example, Alternative Five requires intensive habitat restoration efforts not just on public land, but on private land as well.

Furthermore, it requires not just continuing the current moratorium on the issuance of new water rights in the basin -- it contemplates an actual reduction in existing water rights.

In other words, the tradeoff for maintaining the four Lower Snake River dams is an increased responsibility for habitat restoration by private landowners and a reduction in existing water rights in the region.

Other studies, such as the federal government’s “All H” paper, suggests additional trade-offs. For example, to recover the Snake River Fall Chinook without removing dams would require a 50-75 percent additional reduction in ocean and river harvest from already historic low current levels. Furthermore, the use of an additional one million acre-feet of water to augment Spring and Summer flows would probably be necessary.

It is also important to point out that while both alternatives yield about the same number of Chinook -- the philosophy that underpins the means by which they reach that end are very different.

The philosophy behind Alternative Three is to benefit salmon by recreating a more normative and resilient ecosystem capable of functioning without a significant amount of human technologic support. It also removes dams to restore almost 140 miles of free-flowing river for better spawning, rearing and migration conditions.

Alternative Five goes in the opposite direction -- calling for an increased reliance on hatcheries and on sophisticated dam passage technologies in lieu of a return to a more naturally functioning ecosystem.

The difference is not insignificant because Alternative Three produces almost two-thirds more natural fish than Alternative Five. The importance of this lies in the fact that one of the purposes of our effort is to satisfy the Endangered Species Act, which determines recovery based on the number of natural fish.

My point is this: if we can move beyond the symbolism of the four Snake River dams -- and look at the policy trade-offs involved, at the other choices we must make if we choose to leave them intact -- breaching emerges as a responsible and cost-effective option.

Some will say that we have not done enough science. I say that we can always play that card as an excuse for inaction and as a justification for avoiding tough choices. But exactly what additional scientific experiment is necessary to demonstrate that it is easier for salmon to migrate in a free-flowing river than to negotiate a several hundred foot high concrete barrier?

Some will say that it is too expensive. I say, look at the other alternatives. There are similar -- if not greater -- costs associated with a non-breach strategy.

Some will say that it is too controversial. I say, what isn’t? Who here thinks that it is non-controversial to cut harvest levels? To change agricultural and timber practices on private land to significantly augment flows?

There is no doubt that we can move ahead with salmon recovery without breaching the dams. All I am saying to you today is that we have to stop deluding ourselves into believing that our choices will be easier and cheaper if we just leave the dams alone.

Our choices won’t be easier. They’ll be just as tough. Our costs might be lower, but only on the margin.

The regional challenge here is to develop an ecosystem recovery strategy that spreads the costs as broadly as possible -- so that no one economic interest bears a disproportionate burden. And these costs must involve not only the cost of the recovery strategy itself, but also the cost of mitigation -- to the greatest extent possible -- the economic consequences, whatever they may be: from increased regional power rates to harvest reductions, to transportation alternatives, to covering the increased cost of pumping for irrigation, to the job loss at various ports along the river.

This does not have to be a zero sum equation. This does not have to be a win-lose proposition and we must not allow it to be framed in that way.

I am well aware of the economic trade-offs inherent in restoring this regional ecosystem. The dams and the hydroelectric generating capacity in the Columbia River Basin have brought huge economic benefits to the region: low cost power, irrigated agriculture, jobs, transportation and much more.

This is not about sacrificing economic benefits for environmental health -- it is about working together as a region to have both. It is about striking a victory for regionalism over parochialism. To quote Wallace Stegner, “it is about outliving our origins” and “building a society to match our scenery.”

I believe that the best way to accomplish that and to equitably spread the economic burden is to build a recovery strategy that includes breaching the four Lower Snake River dams. I also appreciate that my position on this issue is, at least at present, a lonely one among the Northwest political establishment.

If my colleagues in the region insist that any recovery strategy must leave the dams intact, then we must be prepared to intensify our efforts in other areas:

I will work with the political leadership in the region in pursuing either path -- but we must choose. . . and act. Because in all of this, delay is the enemy.

The federal government in particular must both take a position on a course of action and provide a significant contribution of financial resources towards the recovery strategy.

For twenty years the Bonneville Power Administration has been the primary funding source for salmon recovery with the dollars coming from the region’s electricity ratepayers. But ratepayers cannot be reasonably expected to provide all of the funds needed to achieve the recovery of this ecosystem and the fish and wildlife that depend on it -- especially when our goals are to protect national resources and to honor national obligations.

Therefore, the federal government must provide substantial additional funds for a Columbia River Basin restoration effort. To date we have not seen the level of commitment needed to succeed. For all our hard-fought efforts last year, Oregon received only $9 million from the federal government for coastal salmon restoration. That won’t make it for the basin.

I call on this administration to demonstrate its commitment for Columbia River ecosystem restoration in the President’s fiscal year 2001 budget. I call on the Northwest Congressional Delegation to take the lead in assuring that Congress appropriates the dollars needed this year.

It is time to act. We have the federal caucus “All H Paper”. We have the Army Corps of Engineer’s Environmental Impact Statement. We have the Northwest Power Planning Council’s multi-species framework process. It is now time for the region to step up to the plate and make some choices.

To quote Theodore Roosevelt, one of the greatest environmental stewards to serve as President of the United States: “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”

Delay is not some benign and prudent placeholder. It is a choice to abandon the Columbia River ecosystem.

The salmon can't wait. The Independent Scientific Advisory Board -- created to advise the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Northwest Power Planning Council -- has concluded that the risk of extinction (even in the next ten years) is substantial.

The people can't wait. The uncertainty of not knowing when, if ever, the region will begin a science-based recovery effort, with a clear goal stated at the outset -- the uncertainty of not knowing what role the various stakeholders will play in this effort -- is distracting, and ultimately destructive to the good will and energy upon which a successful recovery strategy must depend.

If salmon extinctions occur, it will not be the first time in our history and probably not the last. But it will be the first time a species has been allowed to become extinct in Oregon and in the Northwest -- in the face of strong evidence of how that fate might be avoided.

My choice is to reject the guiltless complacency that has permitted this drift toward extinction and to simply do what needs to be done.

I ask you in the Northwest Region to make the same choice. I ask you embrace this vision I have of a Pacific Northwest that remains ecological, spiritually, yes, even politically, intact.

Together, we can make it a reality.

Governor John Kitzhaber
"Reject the Guiltless Complacency"
Addressing the American Fisheries Society, February 19, 2000

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