the film
Commentaries and editorials

Northwest Farmers Head to Capitol Hill to Battle Breaching

by Les Blumenthal, Washington, D.C., bureau
Tri-City Herald, March 23, 2000

WASHINGTON - After a similar trip last year, Jonathan Schlueter said he had no intention of leading another delegation of Northwest farmers to the nation's capital to lobby against breaching four Snake River dams.

But the controversial plan for saving dwindling salmon runs refuses to go away, forcing Schlueter, executive vice president of the Pacific Northwest Grain & Feed Association, and about a dozen farmers and shippers from the region back to Washington, D.C., this week.

"I wasn't going to make this an annual event," Schlueter said Wednesday. "We thought the Northwest (congressional) delegation, the administration, the Corps of Engineers would recognize the impacts and conclude this was not worth pursuing. But a year later, you have to question whether we have made any progress."

With a decision due later this year on whether to breach the dams, Schlueter and the farmers spread out over Capitol Hill in an effort to put a human face on the dispute. The group also was scheduled to meet with the representatives of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

"Financially, it would kill us," warned Robert Newtson, who farms about 6,800 acres of dryland wheat near Helix, Ore.

Farmers say breaching the Snake River dams would make the river unnavigable for the barges that carry much of the region's wheat crop downstream to Portland for export to Japan, Korea, Tawian, Pakistan, Egypt and Sri Lanka.

Without the barge traffic, farmers say they would be forced to rely on more expensive rail and truck transportation, adding to their costs when they already are hard-pressed financially.

Newtson's farm operation wouldn't be affected directly by the breaching of the Snake River dams because his wheat is hauled to a terminal near McNary Dam on the Columbia River. But he fears it could set a precedent.

"If they take out the four Snake River dams, what's to keep them from taking out other dams like the John Day?" he said.

Newtson, who was representing the 2,400-member Pendleton Grain Growers Association, said it costs him about 35 cents per bushel to truck his wheat about 30 miles from his farm to the McNary terminal, then 22 cents per bushel to barge it down the Columbia to Portland. If he was forced to rely on trucks to carry the wheat all the way to Portland, he would just about go broke.

"It's almost so silly," he said. "Who would have thought it would go this far?"

Schlueter said enough grain is exported from the Northwest to fill the Kingdome every 10 days. Rail lines in the region are insufficient to carry it, and trucks would overwhelm the highways, he said.

"There's no way you could get all these trucks into Portland," he said.

To deliver the grain by rail would require every hopper car currently in use in the United States, or a train of about 300,000 cars stretching from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine, Schlueter said.

"Our margins are already slim," said Steve Riggers, a farmer from Craigmont, Idaho, near Lewiston.

Riggers said switching from barge to truck or rail easily could cost him $30,000 to $40,000 a year in added costs and also raise questions from foreign buyers about the reliability of Northwest wheat. (bluefish note: grain is sent by truck or rail from Craigmont to Lewiston)

"It would be a big risk," he said.

Ron Williams, a senior merchant for Columbia Grain International in Portland, said any disruption in transporting the wheat or increase in costs could jeopardize foreign markets for Northwest growers.

Williams said officials at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C., told him they were concerned Northwest wheat shipments could be affected by breaching the dams and that they might have to start buying more wheat from Australia.

"When we are being asked to be globally competitive, it's amazing they want to take away one of our advantages," he said.

Judy Rea, an Ione, Ore., wheat grower and representative of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, said she could remember what it was like before the dams.

"Now, our whole economy has been built around those dams, and it has flourished," she said. "I think we are smart enough and capable enough to find a solution (bluefish suggests clarkstn.htm). But we can't let our guard down. We have to be diligent without being wild-eyed."

Related Sites:
Washington Puts More on Line As Rail Gamble Pays Off
Snake River Dam Removal Transportation Transition Plan Released

Les Blumenthal, Herald Washington, D.C., bureau
Northwest Farmers Head to Capitol Hill to Battle Breaching
Tri-City Herald, March 23, 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