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Dam Removal Plan Laudable

by Larry Swisher
The Register-Guard - February 29, 2000

WASHINGTON - Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber's support for tearing down four major federal dams to save endangered Northwest salmon sets an example of bold leadership seldom seen on tough environmental issues.

Now in his last term as governor with an uncertain political future, Kitzhaber's endorsement of the highly controversial dam-breaching option has shaken up business as usual for Columbia River hydropower system management, which threatens to stall, debate and study the fish to death.

By challenging the Northwest to face facts and take action to forestall all but certain extinction, Kitzhaber is saying, "Enough! We can - and must - do better, or else we can kiss our ecosystem goodbye."

Receiving a standing ovation from the Oregon Fisheries Society, the professional biologists' organization, Kitzhaber argued that removing the four lower Snake River dams and mitigating for economic losses would cost no more than a nonbreaching salmon recovery plan but would bring back more fish and would reduce the need to severely restrict other economic activities, including logging, fishing, irrigation, farming and ranching.

Kitzhaber correctly framed the trade-off with concrete examples of choices the region will have to make one way or another because of the Endangered Species Act, Indian treaties and other obligations for salmon. Unless the dams are removed, recovery for the Snake River fall chinook, for example, would require a 50 percent to 75 percent reduction in Pacific Ocean and Columbia River fishing, from already historic lows, and the diversion of an additional 1 million acre feet of water - mostly from Idaho - to augment spring and summer river flows downstream.

Kitzhaber also pointed out that breaching is not the silver bullet that will solve the problem all by itself. Further restrictions on harvest, habitat disturbance and hatchery operations will still be necessary.

Environmentalists, biologists, Indian tribes and fishing interests have fought for dramatic action to save salmon for years, but it's been an uphill battle against big money interests, government bureaucratic indifference and entrenched power. Now they finally have a political heavyweight in their corner.

The last time a major Northwest politician showed guts on the salmon issue was in the early 1990s when Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus pushed the region to adopt his recovery plan, which centered on seasonal drawdowns of Columbia and Snake reservoirs to speed fish migration. The Northwest Power Council briefly embraced his proposal in 1994, then abandoned it in the face of opposition from the usual vested interests.

But other Northwest governors, including fellow Democrat Gary Locke of Washington state, where the dams are located, disagreed with Kitzhaber; and Republican Sens. Slade Gorton of Washington and Gordon Smith of Oregon vowed to kill any attempt to win the required congressional approval and funding for dam removal and economic and transitional aid to ports, farmers and shippers.

"No proposal to remove Snake or Columbia River dams will pass in Congress while I am senator," said Gorton, who is running for re-election this year.

Polls have found that no more than 40 percent of the people in Oregon, Idaho or Washington support breaching dams to save salmon, with the greatest approval coming from metropolitan areas. Public opposition is heavy in Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho and Eastern Oregon, where Kitzhaber's endorsement will hurt any ambitions he might harbor for running for the Senate in 2002, when Gordon Smith is up for re-election.

As salmon slip closer to extinction, paralyzed federal agencies have been holding another round of counterproductive public hearings that have turned into a contest between dam-breaching advocates and opponents, instead of the consensus-building events that were promoted.

"The real debate is whether we save salmon or not," said Bob Applegate, Kitzhaber's press secretary, "and right now, people are using a breaching/no breaching debate to really avoid talking about the core central issues: What set of very expensive, politically risky things are we going to do to save salmon?"

With no one else willing to talk about those choices, Kitzhaber "felt a real need to rip the lid off this can of worms and have people take a real look inside," Applegate said.

"The salmon can't wait," Kitzhaber said in his speech. "The people can't wait."

Related Links:
Governor John Kitzhaber's American Fisheries Society Speech
"Inspite of the Inertia . . .", Cecil Andrus, Sockeye Release Speech 1993

Larry Swisher , a columnist based in Washington, D.C., writes for Pacific Northwest newspapers.
Dam Removal Plan Laudable
The Register-Guard, February 29, 2000

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