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Commentaries and editorials

Clash Over Uses
of Snake, Columbia Rivers

by Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - June 7, 2005

CLARKSTON -- Environmental and outfitters groups clashed yesterday with advocates for agriculture, transportation and business organizations at a congressional field hearing on future uses of the Snake and Columbia river systems.

Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter acknowledged that the imperiled salmon that use the rivers as highways to and from the Pacific Ocean "are an important part of our heritage and economy, and maintaining the salmon in the Snake River is a very high priority."

But the Idaho Republican also blamed environmental groups for causing economic hardship on agricultural and timber industries, which use ports in Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston as conduits to ship products overseas.

"Five years ago, environmentalists managed to manipulate existing law and tie the hands of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with a lawsuit that blocked them from dredging the important navigational channels of the Snake River," Otter said in a statement. "Their success had devastating consequences for the economy of Idaho."

A spokesman for Otter said it is more expensive to ship products when shallow river channels mean barges cannot be filled to capacity to carry cargo to Portland. There, the products are reloaded onto larger vessels.

Spokesman Mark Warbis said he couldn't quantify the damage done to the economy, but he would not concede it was anything less than "devastating."

Chairman George Radanovich, R-Calif., called the hearing of the House Committee on Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power. Otter and Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., also attended.

Bill Sedivy, director of Idaho Rivers United, said Otter's economic claim was absurd and only made for political benefit.

"Butch is running for governor, and this is the start of his campaign," Sedivy said in a telephone interview from Clarkston. "There's nothing real serious going on inside this hearing room. This is politics. Show me the bleeding."

Otter has announced he'll run for governor in 2006.

Sedivy added that the real economic damage has been borne by Idaho outfitters and fishing guides who have suffered from this year's shortened fishing season. Far fewer fish have returned from the ocean than had been predicted.

"Hotel and restaurant parking lots that should be full of salmon fishermen are empty," Sedivy said. "The town of Salmon, Idaho, hasn't had a fishing season since 1978. Tell me who's being devastated economically."

Snake River chinook salmon, sockeye salmon and steelhead trout are listed on the endangered species list, either as endangered or threatened.

The fish begin their lives in inland rivers, tributaries and even high mountain streams. As small fish they ride the current to the Pacific Ocean, where they spend two or more years living in salt water.

An internal biological alarm clock tells them to return to their original hatching grounds -- often to the same patch of river gravel -- to lay their eggs, spawn and die.

Salmon and steelhead are crucial to the cultural identity of many Northwest Indian tribes and are an important economic engine for the Northwest.

Norm Semanko, executive director of Idaho Water Users Association, testified about the value of Snake River water to farmers. He said the water supplied by the Snake and Columbia systems is worth more than $5 billion annually in Idaho, Washington and Oregon for farming, ranching, hydropower, sportfishing and flood-control benefits.

But all of that, he said, is "under direct assault by extremist environmental groups."

Semanko, a Republican who intends to run for Otter's open congressional seat in 2006, also warned that environmental groups' application to force some reservoirs to draw down to increase the velocity of the lower Snake and Columbia Rivers for fish this summer would create economic disasters.

"This motion threatens to wreak havoc on our region by crippling our river transportation and power systems, taking badly needed water supplies away from farmers and ranchers, and even stealing water from our municipalities, resident fisheries, and local recreation," Semanko said.

"As a state and as a region, we cannot tolerate these kinds of devastating impacts this summer -- or ever."

Joel Kawahara, a commercial fisherman from Quilcene, asked the congressmen not to forget about coastal fishermen.

"With the decline of salmon, commercial fishermen and families from California to Oregon, Washington and Alaska have suffered tremendously over the last 30 years," Kawahara said in a statement.

"Restoring the fishery would restore economies and communities throughout the Northwest, and could provide a vast source of healthy, wholesome food for the region and the rest of America."

Associated Press
Clash Over Uses of Snake, Columbia Rivers
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 7, 2005

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