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Here's How Change Looks in Portland, Boise

by Marty Trillhaase
Lewiston Tribune, May 24, 2009

Like it or not, life as we know it on the lower Snake River is changing. Just reading U.S. District Judge James Redden's letter to federal officials tells you as much.

The Portland-based Redden presides over a court case pivoting on whether Idaho's declining salmon and steelhead runs can co-exist with four dams on the lower Snake. He all but signaled his belief that they can't - and his intent to reject the government's latest fish recovery plan. What's more, he outlined the steps he believes will be required to prevent extinction:

No longer warring with a Bush administration determined to maintain the dams, Redden is addressing an Obama White House that campaigned on a pledge to put science before politics. In fact, the judge's letter comes after the administration sought a month or two to review its options.

But the judge also could be speaking for the hundreds of thousands of people throughout Idaho who have grown frustrated with the length and cost of this unresolved debate. Fish recovery plans have chewed up more than $1 billion in the last decade or two with dim results. Fish numbers are better than they've been, but that's credited to favorable ocean conditions and aggressive hatchery production.

Expenses are rising. Some say it will cost $200 million a year to prop up the system throughout the Columbia basin. Outside north central Idaho or eastern Washington, you'll find more people who wonder if it's worth the sacrifice. Count among them the irrigators of southern Idaho who in the midst of disputes about water scarcity and a long-term drought already send nearly 500,000 acre-feet down river and could be asked to deliver more.

If there's an inkling of hope here, it's in the newfound common purpose in Idaho's congressional delegation. Gone are ideologues such as Sen. Larry Craig and Rep. Bill Sali, replaced by pragmatists such as Sen. Jim Risch and Rep. Walt Minnick. Joined by Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson, they represent - as Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey observed - the "put-Idaho-first ethic."

Key to that ethic is a collaborative model. It puts people who have been fighting about resource issues at the same table and then empowers them to reach a solution that nobody loves but all can live with. Crapo embraced collaboration with his successful Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness bill. Simpson has pioneered it with his efforts to finally secure wilderness for Idaho's Boulder-White Cloud range.

Risch already has tried something similar, inviting the parties battling over fish and dams to try the same thing.

The entire region has an interest in his success. And as Redden observed, it does not have an infinite amount of time: "We simply cannot afford to waste another decade. All of us know that aggressive action is necessary to save this vital resource, and now is the time to make that happen."

Marty Trillhaase
Here's How Change Looks in Portland, Boise
Lewiston Tribune, May 24, 2009

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