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Portland Hearing Favors Dam Breaching

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, February 4, 2000

PORTLAND - Long after a parade of trucks towing fishing boats clogged one of this city's busiest streets and conservation groups rallied next to a 25-foot-long inflatable sockeye, Jay Formick held up a portrait of his 18-month-old daughter.

"I consider it my responsibility to safeguard the natural treasures that are as much her birthright as they were mine," the Canby man told the federal officials who are trying to determine what to do with the four dams on the lower Snake River.

"We are more dedicated to preserving Jacqueline's birthright than saving a few bucks on our electricity bills every month," he said. And the people cheered.

Roughly 350 people attended the first formal hearing on the Snake dams Thursday. After several more hearings around the Northwest and Alaska this winter, the Army Corps of Engineers aims to decide what's best for the dams above Pasco. Another 500 attended the night session, many dressed in red to show solidarity against dams. Two men testified dressed like Lewis and Clark, and at least two people wore large fish costumes.

Save Our Wild Salmon paraded through the conference center with large blue signs bearing some of the 96,000 signatures they have from people across the country who want the dams down.

"What we really showed was ... this is not just an issue for full-time environmentalists," said Chris Zimmer with Save Our Wild Salmon. "This actually was a very good day for us."

The Tri-City hearing is Feb. 17 at the Doubletree Hotel in Pasco. Doors open at noon, and public testimony on the Snake dams, the John Day drawdown study and other federal river documents will be taken from 3 to 5 p.m. and again starting about 7:30.

Will Stelle, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said Thursday that federal agencies still have not determined what to do with the dams, a decision that ultimately is up to Congress. "The options are open," he said. "The options are real."

Stelle also said his agency's May plan for running the hydroelectric system for the next several years will leave the dam question to the Corps, which is aiming to have its recommendation ready by late summer.

In Portland, the Corps heard a much different story than what it's likely to get in the Tri-Cities and Lewiston.

While several people spoke in defense of the dams, the majority here want the dams out. They believe a more naturally flowing Snake River will help rebuild fish runs, create more fishing jobs in coastal towns, allow for more angling and meet treaty obligations with Northwest tribes.

"The dams basically are strangling these runs," said Jim Martin, recently retired chief of fisheries for Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife. Like many here, Trout Unlimited's Jeff Curtis framed the issues in terms of integrity and honor. "This is not scientific choice. This is not an economic choice," he said. "This is a moral choice."

That said, he gave the National Marine Fisheries Service a long list of problems with its in-house science team and asked for answers.

Martin agreed on both accounts, science and morals. "We are going to have to be able to explain to our children why, to preserve barging to Lewiston, we gave up on these runs," he said. "It is a shame and an embarrassment that the ... (Clinton) administration shows such lack of vision, courage and integrity."

And Sarah Stebbins, president of the Earth and Spirit Council, supported dam breaching as a way to treat the Snake River as a "sacred, shared ecosystem that can reveal spirit to all."

At a morning rally before the hearing, Portland-area anglers were less interested in revelations of spirit than they were about protecting their fishing seasons. About 100 of them gathered with several dozen shiny aluminum boats in the parking lot of a marine supply store to remind viewers that their hobby should count for something in the great federal salmon scales.

Anglers wore their hearts on their placards. "Frankly my dear, I don't want a dam," one stated.

The gathering was much less intense than a similar rally in Yakima by farmers and builders last week. But the message was just as clear - 10 years after the first Snake River salmon stocks gained federal protection, the government has failed to create a comprehensive recovery plan.

Anglers say they have shouldered the worst of the conservation plans to date as their fishing seasons were cut back or dropped altogether. Martin, a 30-year fisheries veteran, said more restraints on harvest won't solve the salmon problem. "The dams are the centerpiece of the mortality picture," he said.

After the rally, anglers formed their boats into a conga line reminiscent of logging trucks during the spotted owl wars and drove toward the hearing while slowing traffic on a major road.

Columbia River tribes also testified in force. "We are tired of empty promises, empty nets, empty stomachs," said Terry Courtney Jr., a Warm Springs Indian.

And Don Sampson, with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, reiterated what tribes have been saying often lately, that they are willing to go to court to force the Clinton administration to take decisive steps to save salmon.

Patrick Reiten with the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative in Portland, however, tried to steer the discussion toward technological upgrades such as dam bypass systems and turbine screens that have made the river significantly safer for fish since the dams were built in the 1960s and 1970s.

Others stressed jobs, farm product transportation, cheap electricity and other benefits of the dams.

"Let's not forget to ensure economic stability and our quality of life before we consider destroying a single dam," said Mike Simonsen, with the Masters, Mates, Pilots union.

Mike Lee
Portland Hearing Favors Dam Breaching
Tri-City Herald, February 4, 2000

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