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Agency Outlines Ideas to Aid Fish, Save Dams

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian - November 17, 1999

Painful and costly alternatives to breaching include
cutting fishing and enforcing restrictions that would protect tributaries

The federal government raised the stakes in the Northwest's thorniest environmental debate Tuesday, outlining painful and costly alternatives for saving Snake River salmon without removing dams.

Among the most drastic options: sharp cuts in commercial and sport salmon fishing; unprecedented restrictions on logging, grazing and development to protect tributaries and streams; and a shift away from reliance on hatchery production.

Taken together, such steps could rival or exceed the $1 billion cost of breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake.

The salmon recovery options are set out in a report the National Marine Fisheries Service released Tuesday during a Portland news conference.

Tribal leaders and conservationists reacted swiftly. By targeting fish harvests and habitat improvements, the federal government is ducking responsibility for its role in the decline of salmon and steelhead trout populations, they said.

"This is a gun raised directly at the heart of tribal fisheries," said Tim Weaver, an attorney representing the Yakama Nation, one of four tribes with treaty rights to Columbia River Basin salmon. "It's ridiculous."

"This isn't about science; it's about politics," said Diane Valantine of Save Our Wild Salmon, a conservation group that has called for breaching the dams. "All they are doing is putting more options on the table as another excuse to delay a decision on the dams."

But Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, said it was past time to shift attention from breaching dams to other causes of declining salmon runs. The four dams generate 5 percent of the region's electric power and provide slack water for barging as far inland as Lewiston, Idaho.

"A regional food fight will probably begin as people start defending their own turf," said Lovelin, who represents industrial river users. "But it's important that other areas where salmon are dying also come to the table."

Will Stelle, regional director of the fisheries service, said the nine federal agencies that drafted the report, known as the 4H Paper, were describing the region's alternatives but not recommending which to pick. "The only game plan here is to lay out the choices and try to stimulate honest debate in the region," Stelle said.

The options range from modest efforts that would improve fish habitat to breaching the four lower Snake River dams: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite.

In April, the fisheries service said breaching the dams would be the surest way to save Snake River salmon runs from extinction and ensure their recovery. But Stelle's remarks and the scientific findings released Tuesday indicate the fisheries service is shifting away from that position.

Stelle said a new fisheries service analysis concluded that breaching the dams would not get Snake River spring/summer chinook off the path to extinction. Restoring their habitat would have far greater effect, Stelle said.

The best choices for aiding Snake River fall chinook would be to breach the dams or cut harvests, he said. That's because fall chinook spawn in the Snake itself, not in its tributaries.

Tribal representatives said they would oppose tribal harvest limits. The tribes, which have called for breaching the dams, stopped commercial harvests of summer chinook in 1964 and spring chinook in 1977.

"The experiment of us cutting harvest for spring/summer chinook has been under way for 30 years and hasn't worked to restore the salmon," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with treaty rights to Columbia Basin salmon. "There is nothing to suggest it will work this time."

Stelle said after the news conference that the fisheries service would recommend against breaching the dams only if it thought other steps the region takes would be sufficient to save salmon. "What we choose to do in the habitat area very much affects what we will have to do in dam removal," he said.

In Washington, members of Congress and their staffs were briefed on the federal document in a closed-door meeting. Afterward, several said the report raised as many questions as it answered and laid the foundation for a lengthy legal and political battle over fish recovery efforts.

"We aren't even at the kickoff yet," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

The fisheries service is to make a recommendation to Congress by spring whether breaching the dams is the best option. Congress would make the final decision.

But DeFazio and others expect the fisheries service's recommendation to be postponed for several years as scientists gather more information.

The report released Tuesday did not calculate the cost of saving salmon without breaching dams. Those numbers will come in a follow-up document to be released in December.

Conservationists think the costs of restoring habitat or cutting fish harvests will be much greater than the cost of breaching dams.

"When it comes down to it, what kind of economic sacrifices are people willing to make?" said Jeff Curtis, Western conservation director of Trout Unlimited. "The region can afford dam breaching. Can it afford the alternatives?"

by Jonathan Brinckman
Agency Outlines Ideas to Aid Fish, Save Dams
The Oregonian, November 17, 1999

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