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Officials Change Position on Dam Breaching

by Associated Press
The Seattle Times - November 8, 1999

PORTLAND - In a shift that could transform the region's fiercest environmental debate, federal officials say endangered salmon could be saved even if four dams on the lower Snake River remained in place.

Citing new findings, they say the key to salmon recovery is to invest more money and greater effort into restoring the streams and rivers where salmon spawn - and not necessarily in breaching the dams.

Making habitat restoration a priority, however, doesn't necessarily mean Northwesterners would get off that easy.

In fact, according to a document obtained by The Oregonian, such efforts spell out tougher restrictions on loggers and road-building along streams. Ranchers would have to work harder to keep cattle out of waterways. Developers would have less land to build on. And city dwellers could face limits on use of household chemicals and pesticides that pollute urban streams.

Meanwhile, federal officials acknowledge that all these measures could be no less expensive or controversial than breaching the dams, which would cost an estimated $1 billion.

"The political pressure that is being put on decision-makers not to breach dams is going to be transferred from dams to habitat," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"Those people whose oxen will be gored by the decision to put the burden on habitat improvement will complain as loudly as those that were worried about the dams."

Earlier this year the fisheries service, the agency that directs salmon recovery, called breaching the dams the surest way to restore endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead trout.

But now they've shifted their emphasis toward restoring the habitat. Top officials at the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration support their position.

In a document agency officials presented to the Clinton administration last week, they said four key factors will determine salmon survival: harvest, hatcheries, habitat and hydropower production.

Three of the alternatives - breaching the four dams, reducing salmon harvests or both - have no federal support.

The fourth option, the one federal agencies appear to favor, calls for leaving the dams in place, but increasing spending on other measures that help salmon. They include:

Releasing more water from Idaho reservoirs to help young salmon migrate to the ocean.

Limiting harvests to current levels for 10 years while maintaining tribal fishing rights.

Expanding hatcheries designed specifically to help rebuild wild populations.

Enforcing state and local rules to protect salmon-bearing rivers and streams running through private and state lands.

Will Stelle, regional director of the fisheries service, said these measures would require greater effort from the four Northwest states.

He asked, "Are we prepared to do what we need to do in order to restore those salmon populations?"

Related Links:
NMFS 4-H Paper

Associated Press
Officials Change Position on Dam Breaching
The Seattle Times, November 8, 1999

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