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Oregon Governor Endorses Breaching

by Associated Press
Spokesman Review, February 19, 2000

Farmers, shippers not likely to agree it's fairest way to share salmon recovery costs

Gov. John Kitzhaber on Friday endorsed breaching four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River in Washington as part of a regional strategy for saving salmon from extinction.

Speaking before the Oregon chapter of the American Fisheries Society, Kitzhaber acknowledged that his position was a lonely one politically, but necessary to fairly spread the economic burden of reversing the precipitous decline in populations of wild salmon and steelhead.

"The salmon can't wait," Kitzhaber said. "The people can't wait."

The governor said the issue was not about sacrificing the economic benefits of the dams for environmental health, but working together as a region to have both.

"To quote Wallace Stegner, `It is about outliving our origins,' and `building a society to match our scenery,"' Kitzhaber said. "I believe the best way to accomplish that and to equitably spread the economic burden is to build a recovery strategy that includes breaching the four lower Snake River dams."

Choosing not to breach the dams would require even more stringent reductions in salmon harvests, more restrictions on private property to improve habitat, and a reduction in existing water rights, the governor said.

"If salmon extinctions occur, it will not be the first time in our history and probably not the last. But it will be the first time a species has been allowed to become extinct in Oregon and in the Northwest in the face of strong evidence of how that fate might be avoided," he said.

Across the border in Idaho, a spokesman said Gov. Dirk Kempthorne maintains that breaching would not meet his criteria that any salmon recovery strategy be acceptable on biological, economic and political terms.

"Instead of embracing an option that's guaranteed to drag out in court for a decade, with nothing to show but legal fees, we should start moving now on actions that can help salmon in the near term," such as improved dam bypass systems and screens and reducing predation by Caspian terns, Kempthorne communications director H.B. said.

Kitzhaber's policy pronouncement came as federal agencies are considering whether to recommend to Congress if the dams should be breached as part of an overall program to restore the Columbia Basin salmon. A series of public hearings is being held around the region.

Twelve populations of Columbia Basin salmon are on the endangered species list, including four from the Snake River.

Built about 30 years ago, Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Lower Granite and Little Goose dams produce 5 percent of the hydroelectric power sold by the Bonneville Power Administration and make it possible for barges to run between the Tri-Cities in Washington to Lewiston -- 300 miles inland from the Pacific.

Environmentalists, Indian tribes and fishermen who support breaching argue that it would restore 140 miles of spawning habitat for fall chinook and stop some of the accumulative destruction of juvenile fish from dams as they migrate to the ocean.

Farmers, barge operators and aluminum workers who oppose breaching argue that it will devastate the local economy by dropping reservoirs below the level of irrigation intakes, eliminate cheap transportation for grain, woodchips and other commodities, and reduce the supply of cheap electricity.

As the first major elected official to endorse breaching, Kitzhaber gave environmentalists a new weapon to take back to Washington, D.C., while lobbying for support, said Jeff Curtis, western conservation director for Trout Unlimited.

"Every time we go back to D.C., somebody says, `Who do you have on your side?"' Curtis said. "Now we've got somebody. And the person is the one who has studied it most and has the most credibility on the issue. I think this is huge and may be the break in the dam of support for this."

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said he doubted Congress would ever support breaching, despite the significance of Kitzhaber's support.

"The logic that takes the first four out could take them all out," said Smith. "It would render eastern Oregon, Washington and Idaho hostage to a grand experiment and delay efforts at salmon mitigation that can actually pass Congress."

Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, representing Yakama, Warms Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes, welcomed Kitzhaber as a new ally.

"We'd like to thank the governor for acknowledging the sacrifices made by our tribal people," Sampson said. "His endorsement of dam removal is responsive to the law, responsive to the people of Oregon and responsive to salmon."

Kitzhaber was speaking to a friendly audience. On Thursday, the professional organization of fish biologists unanimously endorsed a resolution saying dam breaching was necessary to restore Snake River salmon runs.

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

Associated Press
Oregon Governor Endorses Breaching
Spokesman Review, February 19, 2000

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