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The Next Phase of the
Salmon Debate Begins with Hope

by Editorial Board
Idaho Statesman, November 23, 2008

It's way too early to declare Nov. 4, 2008 a turning point in the salmon debate.

But it isn't too early to hope. This month's elections finally offer a glimmer of optimism to anyone passionate about saving Idaho's wild salmon. Considering the continued plight of the salmon - and the political gridlock at the root of their peril - it feels good to feel hopeful.

Sen.-elect Jim Risch, R-Idaho, has pledged to bring together the region's interest groups in an attempt to negotiate a recovery plan - a tacit suggestion that our state's salmon deserve better than the status quo.

Risch has a vow of help from Democrat Walt Minnick, representative-elect in Idaho's 1st Congressional District. With Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, Minnick brings a lot to the process. Risch certainly has the political savvy to see that.

Here's what President-elect Barack Obama says: "Implementing a meaningful salmon population recovery plan will be a key environmental priority of my administration, and I support efforts to create a salmon recovery plan that balances all of these important environmental, agricultural and renewable energy interests."

None of this necessarily translates into support of breaching the four lower Snake River dams in Washington state, a primary impediment to Idaho salmon and steelhead migration. Risch, Minnick and Obama say more or less the same thing about breaching. None of them support breaching now, but none of them reject the idea outright.

This open-mindedness offers hope, because it represents a major improvement over the status-quo apologists who are on their way out the door.

Retiring Idaho Sen. Larry Craig has spent 28 years building seniority in Congress, and using that power to effectively pre-empt serious discussion of salmon recovery. Idaho 1st District Rep. Bill Sali made up for a lack of seniority with bombast, sponsoring a resolution in Congress that suggested dam breaching would actually be "devastating to salmon and steelhead stocks." But the biggest whopper may belong to President Bush, whose administration actually argued in court that dams were simply part of the salmon's natural environment. Not surprisingly, U.S. District Judge James Redden rejected the argument.

When this three-man legion of doom leaves office, not a day too soon for Idaho salmon, the tone of the debate will change.

But the parameters of the debate must change as well.

For too many years, critics have been allowed to frame breaching as an extreme measure. They've succeeded in painting a scenario of a devastated regional shipping network and a crippled power supply. Their arguments don't withstand serious scrutiny but they have defined the debate.

Let's redefine the debate with an eye to current economic reality.

The region does need additional power generation and transmission. The lower Snake dams account for an estimated 5 percent of the Northwest's power, electricity that must be replaced. This ties well in with Obama's pledge to champion a greener energy system. We believe there is a better answer than wringing electricity from fish-killing "run-of-river" dams that generate power only when water flows are sufficient to run the turbines.

We also recognize that the dams have provided a string of slackwater reservoirs that allow industries and farmers to barge products from Idaho to the Pacific Rim. But we're also heading into an era when our country needs to get serious about rebuilding an aging infrastructure, and create needed jobs in the process. Replacing reservoirs with rail lines fits neatly with this effort.

We still believe breaching is the best way to save Idaho's wild salmon, preserving an iconic mainstay of our wild ecosystem. We still believe breaching also best protects Idaho water users, whose livelihood hinges on dependable access to a scarce supply. And today, as we confront our nation's energy and economic needs, we believe breaching will emerge as a viable move.

We enter the next phase of the salmon debate with hope - and that's a good starting point.

Editorial Board
The Next Phase of the Salmon Debate Begins with Hope
Idaho Statesman, November 23, 2008

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