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Dam-breaching Proponents Make Noise at Public Forum

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, February 4, 2000

Two federal agencies begin a six-week trek seeking input on salmon and steelhead trout in the Columbia River Basin

Angry anglers and fishing guides made a dramatic appearance Thursday at two public forums on the future of Snake River dams as federal officials launched a six-week road trip through the Northwest and Alaska.

The meetings in Portland were the first of 13 across the region led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The agencies are seeking public input on strategies for restoring salmon and steelhead trout in the Columbia River Basin.

By 10 a.m., an enthusiastic crowd of anglers, guides and others who make a living from sport fishing had filled the parking lot of Fisherman's Marine and Outdoor at Delta Park. Clutching signs and placards, they cheered speeches supporting the breaching of federal dams on the lower Snake River. They then formed an 89-vehicle motorcade towing a variety of fishing vessels and were shepherded by Portland police on motorcycles to the Holiday Inn at the Airport.

Anglers are angry about proposed fishing restrictions and call federal dams the problem with Columbia fish runs. "This little boat parade has put fishermen in the argument," said Dan Grogan, president of Fisherman's Marine and Outdoor. "If there were a way to save these fish without breaching dams, believe me, we'd try it. But we've tried everything."

More than eight hours of presentations and meetings followed. In a room with seats for 720 people, speaker after speaker called for the dams to be breached. Although substantially outnumbered, opponents of breaching also made their case.

The corps is completing a $20 million study that examines whether the four dams should be breached to help four stocks of federally protected Snake River salmon and steelhead trout. The fisheries service is developing a wider plan for restoring 12 stocks of salmon in the Columbia Basin listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Both agencies, which have not picked a strategy, are outlining alternative proposals through March 8 at the public meetings in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

Thursday's forums were loud, with cheers following presenters who called for breaching the dams. Many wore stickers reading "Those dams don't make sense" or "We need salmon."

Opponents of the dam-breaching said they expected to be outnumbered in Portland but hope to have the majority in future venues, particularly Lewiston, Idaho, and Pasco, Wash.

"I felt intimidated coming here," said Gary Beck, a casting tender at Reynolds Metal Co., an aluminum refinery in Troutdale that relies on low-cost federal electricity generated at the dams. "I came because I wanted to be a voice for the job loss that breaching would bring."

Breaching the Snake River dams -- removing their earthen portions so the river could flow past unimpeded -- would end electricity production at the four dams and result in a 2 percent to 8 percent increase in residential electricity prices, according to an economic analysis done for the corps. It also would render a 140-mile stretch of the river unnavigable by barges.

Conservationists and tribes say the economic costs of breaching are minuscule compared with the advantages of restoring salmon in the Columbia. The corps puts the net cost at $246 million a year.

The river system, which once supported an estimated 16 million salmon, now gets about 1 million returning salmon a year, most of which are born in hatcheries. Although some populations are strong -- about 200,000 fall chinook return each year to the stretch of the Columbia River near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation that is (bluefish has made correction here) only blocked by 4 Columbia River dams and not the 4 Snake River dams as well -- fishing levels are sharply limited.

"The biological choice is clear: Breach the dams," said Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with salmon fishing rights reserved by 1855 treaties.

Sampson, who received loud applause, ended his testimony with a warning: "The tribes will use our legal basis to do whatever we need to do to return salmon to the Columbia."

Jonathan Brinckman
Bill Monroe of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.
Dam-breaching Proponents Make Noise at Public Forum
The Oregonian, February 4, 2000

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