the film
Commentaries and editorials

Kitzhaber Prods Gore to Take Stand on Salmon Runs

by Jeff Mapes, The Oregonian staff
The Oregonian, May 12, 2000

The governor calls on the vice president to promise a post-election summit on the fish

The governor calls on the vice president to promise a post-election summit on the fish Friday, May 12, 2000 By Jeff Mapes of The Oregonian staff SALEM -- Gov. John Kitzhaber said Thursday that fellow Democrat Al Gore's continued silence on the fate of the Snake River dams "baffles" him, and he called on the vice president to promise a post-election summit on restoring endangered salmon runs.

Kitzhaber, a vice chairman of Gore's campaign in Oregon, said in advance of the vice president's visit to Portland today that Gore is missing an opportunity to seize leadership of the Northwest's most contentious environmental issue.

"He shouldn't come out and say he wants to breach the dams, I'm not suggesting that," Kitzhaber said in an interview. "He ought to come out and take a position on the whole issue, though -- elevate it. Say, 'Look, this is really important; we are going to solve it.' "

David Chai, a Portland spokesman for the Gore campaign, said the vice president was committed to finding a solution that protects both salmon and the region's economy. But he said Gore did not plan to address the issue on his visit to Portland because he instead wanted to focus on Social Security.

Chai said Gore would meet privately with Kitzhaber, however, and listen to his concerns.

Two Oregon Democrats who have had discussions with high-ranking Gore advisers said the Gore campaign had been insistent about not wanting to tackle the issue publicly at this point.

Organized labor and environmentalists, both chief support groups for the vice president, are divided over dam breaching. In addition, Republicans, who already portray Gore as a too zealous environmentalist, could seize on anything the vice president says to suggest he might attack scores of water projects throughout the West.

Critics of dam breaching say it would hurt the region's economy by curtailing irrigation, power production and the barging of wheat for export markets. Two of the chief opponents of breaching, Republican Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon and Slade Gorton of Washington, both charged that Gore wants to avoid talking about the issue until after the election.

"Oregonians shouldn't have to wait until after the election to learn the vice president's true position on this issue," Smith said Thursday in Washington, D.C.

Gore is set to speak with about 150 invited students and other residents at a late-morning event at the Portland Community College Sylvania campus and then to meet privately with local supporters. The event is closed to the public, and Gore has not scheduled any other appearances during his Portland visit.

This is not the first time that Kitzhaber has expressed irritation with Gore -- or the rest of the Clinton administration -- about how to deal with the endangered salmon runs in the Columbia-Snake river system.

In January, Kitzhaber endorsed Gore's primary rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley, in part because of the salmon issue. And in February, Kitzhaber became the region's first important political figure to endorse breaching the dams to help salmon migrate through the river system.

Still, Kitzhaber said he was confident a Gore administration would do a better job of dealing with the salmon issue than Republican George W. Bush, who since last summer has vowed to oppose any attempt to breach the dams. Bush is scheduled to visit the Portland area Tuesday, the day mail ballots are due in the primary election.

"He's not a guy I think who is going to provide any leadership out there," Kitzhaber added. "Now Gore, on the other hand, has a very good environmental record. And what baffles me is his continued silence on this issue."

The half-dozen federal agencies with a hand in the issue are beginning to reach divergent conclusions, Kitzhaber said, adding that Gore could assert leadership by promising to hold a salmon summit after the election to arrive at a united solution.

That's similar to the approach followed by President Clinton, who in 1993 followed up on a campaign promise by holding a timber summit in Portland to deal with the spotted owl, a threatened species in the Northwest.

The governor urged Gore to explain his commitment to solving the salmon problem in a way that minimizes the economic impact while also not ruling out any options, including dam breaching.

"I fail to see the political downside in taking charge of this issue," Kitzhaber said. Voters who are upset with a decision by Gore to keep the idea of dam breaching alive "aren't going to be happy with him anyway," he said.

Disdain for Bush decision At the same time, Kitzhaber expressed disdain for Bush's decision to dismiss taking out the dams, saying Bush "has no particular passion about the environment."

"We end up with a whole bunch of lawsuits" in a Bush administration, Kitzhaber said.

"We end up with (federal) Judge (Malcolm) Marsh ordering (the National Marine Fisheries Service) to do something. You know, he can order taking the dams out, he can order drawdowns, he can order changes in land management. You can end up with the tribes perhaps suing for treaty violations. . . . That's the worst possible outcome."

Chai, the Gore spokesman, said the vice president is committed to a "science-based approach" that would "bring people together from both sides." But he said the vice president will move deliberately.

"This is a very complex issue, and pulling it all together does not just happen overnight," he said.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the state chairman of Gore's campaign, could not be reached Thursday. But his chief of staff, Josh Kardon, said the Clinton administration has handled the issue in a "very thorough and concerned fashion." Kardon said he didn't know that Gore needs to say any more at this point.

But Gorton charged that Gore has been willing to comment on other regional issues when it suits him politically. "He's certainly quite willing to tell the citizens of South Carolina what flag they can fly," added Gorton, referring to Gore's call to remove the Confederate battle flag from that state's Capitol. "But he seems not willing to tell the people of Washington and Oregon what his views are on an issue of vital importance to them and their regional economy."

Jeff Mapes, The Oregonian staff
Kitzhaber Prods Gore to Take Stand on Salmon Runs
The Oregonian, May 12, 2000

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation