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Heritage or Hydro

by Sherry Devlin
Missoulian - March 3, 2000

Open up river flow to save salmon, say tribal members

The wild salmon of the Columbia and Snake river drainages are the buffalo of Pacific Northwest Indian tribes, and must - by treaty - be saved from extinction and restored to healthy numbers, tribal members said Thursday.

"These salmon have been suffering for years and years," Nez Perce tribal member Thomas Joseph told a panel of federal officials meeting in Missoula to take public comment on how to recover healthy migratory runs of salmon and steelhead.

"We need to decide to take out those lower Snake River dams. We need to decide what is best for the fish," Joseph said.

Again and again, the standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 people repeated Joseph's call that Congress to order the breaching of four dams between Lewiston, Idaho, and Pasco, Wash. - Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor.

And many repeated his warning: If wild salmon runs are lost, the federal government could owe the tribes of the Pacific Northwest $13 billion for their lost fishing rights - rights guaranteed in an 1855 treaty.

"These fish are our buffalo," said Bob Lovely, a member of the Native American Law Students Association at the University of Montana.

"So many of the promises made to native people have been broken. This is an opportunity to stand up for some of those promises," said Lovely.

UM law professor Raymond Cross called upon his own tribal heritage in suggesting that the best recovery strategy would employ "honor, heritage, heroism and humility" - not the modifications of hydropower, habitat, fish harvest and hatcheries proposed by federal land, water and dam-building agencies.

"Without the wild salmon, our heritage won't be worth having," Cross said. "Our tribes will be gone. Our tourism will dry up. Our grandchildren won't know what made this region great."

Some in the audience, however, suggested that the region is great because of the hydroelectric dams built on the Columbia and Snake rivers since the 1940s.

"We can't step back to the days of Lewis and Clark, even if we wanted to," said Robert Bailey, speaking for the Ravalli County Electric Cooperative's 8,400 members. "The economy of the Northwest is tied to the dams on the Columbia River system."

"Hydropower has made the Northwest what it is today," said Charles Swanson, also of the Corvallis-based co-op. "Removing dams is not in the interest of electric users. We need to act with good judgment, not short-sightedness."

Since the four lower Snake River dams were completed in the 1960s and 1970s, salmon numbers have declined dramatically, and four stocks of salmon and steelhead are in danger of extinction in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. One analysis by the Northwest Power Planning Council said breaching the earthen portions of the four dams and carefully using hatcheries to supplement fish would increase salmon populations by 125 percent.

Salmon runs have declined by 90 percent in the past 15 years.

At Thursday's hearing, Trout Unlimited member and retired fisheries biologist Rick Stowell said he once believed steelhead could "take anything we threw at them."

"But now they're in trouble," he said. "The fish are getting ground up in these hydro facilities. If we don't take these dams out, it's not if, but when. These fish will go extinct in five generations, in 30 years."

The Snake River Basin has at least 70 percent of its habitat intact, Stowell said. If the dams were breached, the fish would have the habitat they needed to spawn and survive upstream.

Graden Oehlerich, a community organizer for the Montana Environmental Information Center, urged Montana Gov. Marc Racicot to follow the lead of his counterpart in Oregon.

Two weeks ago, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber endorsed breaching the lower Snake River dams as "a responsible and cost-effective option" for saving salmon and steelhead populations.

"This issue has been studied to death," Oehlerich said. "To put off a decision any longer will push these fish to extinction. Delaying a decision is making a decision, because delay will mean extinction."

Orofino, Idaho, businessman Keith Stonebraker said the Corps sold the Snake River dams to Lewiston with false promises.

"They told us that the dams would not be detrimental to migrating fish," he said. "... One general told us that you could stick a horse through those turbines and it would pop out on the other side. There is no such thing as a fish- or horse- friendly turbine."

Sherry Devlin
Heritage or Hydro
Missoulian, March 3, 2000

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