Fish Stories Lure Investorsby Dean Ferguson
Lewiston Tribune, February 9, 2005
$52 million potential economic gain for Lewiston could reopen dam debate
BOISE -- Leaders from small river communities heralded a study in the Statehouse Tuesday claiming salmon and steelhead could mean $544 million a year to Idaho. The study may reignite discussions about removing four Snake River dams.
"The bottom line is fish are worth money," said Don Reading, a Boise-based economist who authored the study for Idaho Rivers United.
The economist used statistics from the 1950s when Idaho had its last full salmon and steelhead season. He compared those fishing levels with current fishing statistics.
The study covers 1,000 miles of Idaho rivers and only focuses on the economic impact of fully restored runs.
"I'm not talking about how to restore them," said Reading. "I'm not a biologist."
Lewiston, which stands to gain about $51.9 million a year, would see most gain from fish and the anglers who follow them, according to the study. Other towns along the Salmon and Clearwater rivers also would enjoy a large benefit.
Tom Zimmerman, the mayor of Riggins, said his town has tasted what salmon fishing can mean. In 2001, Riggins businesses took in $10 million in just two months.
"What we've seen is a glimpse," said Zimmerman. "That's a lot of money to a town of 400 people."
If salmon and steelhead runs were sustained, the community could plan better, keep outfitters working longer and keep businesses open longer, said Zimmerman. A restored fishery would allow Idaho to plan in the way Alaska does, he said. In Alaska, for example, travel agents can book fishing trips well in advance of the season because they know there will be a season.
He also noted that though Riggins has benefited from fishing, the town's school is still losing students. Families with children would stay in the community with a longer fishing season that could be counted on year after year, he said.
The study will likely bring skepticism from others in Idaho.
Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, said past economic studies have been "overstated." Shepherd noted Zimmerman's support of the study is not surprising because Zimmerman is a teacher and he owns a tackle shop.
As a former member of the Riggins Chamber of Commerce, Shepherd said the chamber surveyed local businesses and always came up with far fewer dollars than past studies claimed the fish brought to Riggins.
"I fully support restoring the fish as best as we can," said Shepherd. "It kept the whole area afloat at a time when timber was cut down."
However, Shepherd said it is less costly and more effective to restore a traditional resource, such as the timber industry.
Also, an effort to fully restore salmon and steelhead runs would promote talk of breaching dams. Idaho Rivers United, who paid for the study, supports dam breaching.
"It'll take a lot of fish," said Bert Bowler, an Idaho Rivers Unlimited biologist who worked for the Idaho Fish and Game Department for 30 years. "That's the bottom line -- it's going to require removing the Lower Snake River dams."
Bowler said combined hatchery and wild runs can't reach a sustainable level without dam breaching.
Reading said he doesn't know whether removing the dams would bring the fish back. However, he said the fish would bring Idaho more money than the barging and electricity from the dams.
"The fish are more valuable," he said.
Reading said there needs to be studies of "the winners and losers and possible mitigation."
Of course, communities in the Stanley area, which is about 400 river miles from Lewiston, may not consider the dams a benefit and blame the dams for ruining the salmon and steelhead fishing.
"We're affected by the fact that the entire river system has been affected to subsidize downstream in Lewiston," said Stanley City Councilor Steve Barnard. "It's like pollution running the wrong way."
Idaho Rivers United is a conservation group with a stated mission "to protect, restore and improve the rivers of Idaho and communities that depend on them."
Of the $544 million, $196 million would come directly from anglers. Indirect expenditures, such as boat building, hotels and other fishing-related business, account for $348 million.
The river community leaders met with the governor's office Tuesday afternoon seeking a more effective policy geared to improving salmon and steelhead runs in the state.
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