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Worried Idaho Workers Pack Meeting on Breaching Dams

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, February 11, 2000

Lewiston millworkers show up in abundance at a federal hearing in nearby Clarkston, Wash.

CLARKSTON, Wash. -- Federal officials weighing the prospect of breaching four lower Snake River dams heard a loud impassioned message Thursday from those who would be most hurt by the action: Forget it.

Hundreds of millworkers and residents of this largely rural region told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service that breaching the dams was a misguided and risky strategy that was certain to hurt jobs and offered no guarantee of saving salmon.

The dams transform a once turbulent waterway into a series of slack pools that allow barges to travel as far east as Lewiston, Idaho, about 400 linear miles east of the Pacific Ocean.

But tribes, conservationists, fishing guides and others in favor of breaching to save salmon were also vocal at the meeting, the third of 13 across the Northwest to discuss federal plans for salmon recovery in the Columbia River Basin. Proponents of breaching said restoring salmon by removing dams would be a lasting economic boon to the region.

The scene, at a conference center on the south bank of the Snake River, was chaotic. Union workers set up a parking lot stage under a banner saying "Save Our Dams" and broadcast country music. Nez Perce tribal members set up a drumming circle, chanting and drumming. Others milled outside the conference center wearing stickers calling for the dams to go.

The loudest voices were from workers from the Potlatch Corp., who led an all-out effort to bring breaching opponents to the public meeting. The meeting, originally slated for a convention center in neighboring Lewiston, was moved earlier this week to the Lewis and Clark Conference Center when officials realized they would need more room. But they still couldn't accommodate the crowd.

The meeting room, with a capacity of 450, was filled for both afternoon and evening sessions. Testimony was broadcast over loudspeakers across the parking lot, and into overflow rooms with television monitors, where hundreds more listened. Corps officials said they had distributed 1,800 information packets.

Millworkers voiced fierce opposition to breaching, which they said could bring economic catastrophe to a region served by slack water. Many said they were angered by the desire of those who live outside their region to bring changes to their lives.

"We can put most of the blame on the ever-growing eco-monsters called the environmental movement," said Russ Evans, a Potlatch worker. "What better way to cripple a country than to lock up its resources and destroy its agricultural and industrial base by removing its cheap and efficient transporting of goods."

Frank Carroll, a spokesman for Potlatch, said the company had made a big effort to get employees to attend the hearings, including allowing opponents of breaching to speak to every work shift over the past five days. Lewiston-based Potlatch, which employees 2,300 people in a city of 30,000, did not require attendance, Carroll said. "We didn't shut anything down. We did not stop any shifts, and we didn't pay people to be here."

Potlatch sends one third of its paperboard to Portland on barges for export to Asia, Carroll said. It does not use the river to transport paper and raw wood products.

State and local Idaho political leaders converged on the meeting, explaining that they had thought it would be held in their state. All were sharply against breaching.

"We're not going to tolerate any attempt by Washington (D.C) to dictate a solution to Idaho," said Idaho Lt. Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, representing Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. "Idaho categorically will not support breaching the Snake River dams as part of any salmon recovery plan."

Breaching was opposed by Jeff Nessett, mayor of Lewiston, and Idaho Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston. "To breach the dams will cripple this area," Stegner said. "I think the majority of people who live here believe that."

Fishing guides called breaching dams the only way to save their livelihoods.

"Breaching dams would not destroy the regional economy, despite the fears raised in a company town," said Gary Lane, an outfitter in Riggins, Idaho. Riggins, on the Salmon River, is dependent on sport fishing for steelhead trout.

Some conservationists had broad smiles. Reed Burkholder, a Boise music teacher who has been advocating breaching for much of the decade, said he was thrilled that the federal government was holding this hearing in the heart of dam country. "The Soviet Union came down in a year, the Berlin Wall went down overnight," Burkholder said, beaming in his seat in the front row. "We've got hope."

Conservationists said they were surprised and pleased by the number of people who spoke out in favor of breaching.

Tribal leaders said that in their view, considering treaties signed by the federal government, the dams must go. "The Nez Perce will not accept extinction as the cost of progress," said James Holt, chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "We support the breaching of the four lower Snake dams."

The fisheries service will make a recommendation on breaching in May. A final decision probably won't come until February 2001 at the soonest, when the Army Corps of Engineers recommends to Congress whether the dams should or should not be breached.

The next public hearings are Feb. 15 in Astoria and Feb. 17 in Pasco, Wash.

Jonathan Brinckman
Worried Idaho Workers Pack Meeting on Breaching Dams
The Oregonian, February 11, 2000

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