the film
Commentaries and editorials

Locke Challenged on Dams

by Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Times - February 24, 2000

As the governor of Oregon wields a rhetorical wrecking ball at the four Lower Snake River dams, Washington Gov. Gary Locke has rushed to their defense, taking his toughest stance yet against breaching the concrete.

"Breaching the dams is not guaranteed to bring back the salmon," Locke said in an interview yesterday. "Why trade clearly-known benefits for something that's very iffy?"

Locke's stand has drawn criticism from environmentalists and tribal leaders who complain he has not offered alternatives for salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin and accuse him of a lack of leadership.

It also drew a challenge from Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, his Democratic partner in the Northwest.

In pointed remarks on leadership, Kitzhaber warned that Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead can no longer afford the "guiltless complacency" of doing nothing.

He asked for Locke's help in finding solutions to the salvation of one of the key images of the region.

"I can certainly force the issue without him, and I'm in the process of doing that," Kitzhaber said yesterday. "But to forge consensus, we need Gary Locke . . . he is a huge player, and it's my hope I can convince him of the wisdom of pushing to the edges of this envelope."

Leading advocate of breaching

In sharp contrast to Locke, Kitzhaber has emerged among Northwest officials as the leading advocate of breaching the four Washington dams - Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite - on the Lower Snake River.

"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?" Kitzhaber demanded last week in a speech to the American Fisheries Society.

Despite the intense heat that speech drew from business and agricultural interests, Kitzhaber repeated his stand yesterday.

"Politics is about leading," he said. "You stake out a position 100 yards ahead of your supply line and then explain why you went there."

Reaction to Kitzhaber's speech last week was swift and skeptical in statehouses around the region.

Mark Snider, spokesman for Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, said the governor was "disappointed" by Kitzhaber's stance. Kempthorne will fight any salmon recovery efforts that involve breaching dams or taking water from Idaho's irrigated farmland, Snider said.

In the office of Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican, there is concern Kitzhaber will force other officials to take a stand on dam removal without enough study.

"He's sort of forced people to lay down their cards," said John Etchart, one of two Montana delegates to the Northwest Power Planning Council, an advisory group to the four Northwestern governors that guides fish and wildlife recovery in the Columbia Basin.

Some already have:

U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., has vowed the Snake dams will "never be breached as long as I am senator."

Alaska governor's stance

Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, has taken no position on dam breaching but is passionate about the Columbia and Snake river dams, which he refers to as "the killing fields."

Most others, including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have taken a wait-and-see stance.

That leaves Kitzhaber, who has gained a reputation as an effective maverick on many political issues.

"This is a smart guy," said Bruce Lovelin of the Columbia River Alliance, which represents industrial river users. "But now he comes out with this speech which creates a real strong reaction from the two governors. . . . Divisiveness, that's what this latest move has created."

The politics of dam breaching can be especially thorny for Democrats such as Locke and Kitzhaber.

Breaching alienates agricultural and business interests, and splits traditional Democratic allies. Environmental groups and Indian tribes favor breaching; but the Washington State Labor Council, representing more than 400,000 unionized workers across the state, opposes it.

"It's an economic issue," said Rick Bender, president of the labor council. "We are talking about jobs."

Many fish advocates see dam breaching as the best hope for devastated salmon runs and are critical of Locke for failing to suggest other solutions.

"If he supports not breaching the dams, then what does he propose in its place?" challenged Don Sampson of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The commission represents several Indian tribes whose treaty rights to Columbia River fish have been hurt by dwindling runs.

Others say Locke has demonstrated an interest in Puget Sound salmon issues, but has been less involved in the Columbia Basin controversy.

"He's going to be in the category of followers on this one, rather than a leader," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "We know education and transportation are important to him, but we are not sure in this basin that he has put salmon recovery first, or high on his list."

Tim Stearns, regional director of the National Wildlife Federation, offered a similar criticism:

"Gary Locke has told us what he doesn't want to do, but he hasn't told us what he does want. I would be stunned if their office has really spent time on this or reviewed the economics."

Crusader for fish

By contrast, Stearns said, Kitzhaber has been a crusader on Columbia River fish, demanding the region make tough choices, overhaul its management of the basin and take collective action to save dwindling salmon runs.

Any action will be complicated by the vast sweep of the Columbia River Basin, which covers an area about the size of Texas. Jurisdiction over fish and wildlife recovery is fractured among 13 sovereign Indian tribes; nine federal agencies; and the governments of seven Western states and British Columbia.

Twelve salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia and Snake rivers are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, and more listings are expected.

Columbia runs have crashed from an estimated 10 million to 16 million adult salmon and steelhead to only about 1 million now returning to spawn each year. About 80 percent of those fish were reared in hatcheries, meaning the population of wild fish is minuscule.

Debate in public hearings

The fish have been hammered by a combination of dam building, logging, farming, development, hatcheries, and both sport and commercial fishing. In response to the crisis, federal agencies have developed a series of analyses for debate in public hearings around the region.

If dams aren't breached, other recovery measures, especially on private land, could be just as tough a sell.

Requiring farmers to cut back on irrigation, fencing cows away from streams, curbing development, limiting fishing - all could be costly and controversial.

"There are similar, if not greater costs associated with a nonbreach strategy," Kitzhaber argued in his speech last week. "Who here thinks that it is not controversial to cut (fishing) levels? To change agricultural and timber practices on private land?"

But Locke remains unconvinced that dam breaching will bring back Columbia River fish.

"Nothing I see so far could change my mind," he said yesterday. "I want to focus on keeping the dams, and developing other alternatives for recovery."

Kitzhaber said he welcomes such a plan. But he said dam breaching must remain an option until there are other alternatives.

"If we want to take dams off the table we have to stop deluding ourselves that our choices become easier or less costly," he said.

"If you stop catching fish, that will help," he said. "If you stop building roads and harvesting timber in a way that adds silt to the rivers, that helps. If you acquire 50 yard riparian buffers on agricultural land and stop using pesticides, that helps.

"The question is, are those choices we are willing to make?"

Related Links:
Governor John Kitzhaber's American Fisheries Society Speech

Lynda Mapes
Locke Challenged on Dams
Seattle Times, February 24, 2000

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation