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Environmentalists Push Dam Breaching at Seattle Hearing

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, March 1, 2000

SEATTLE - To the pit-pat of the ever-present rain and the boom-boom of Indian drums, Suquamish elder Harold Belmont Sr. belted out an ancient song of despair for a panel of stone-faced federal agents.

"Look at us. Pity us," sang the Seattle man in a haunting native tongue. "We are in a struggle to save the land and the water."

The same struggle engaged about 450 people Tuesday as the federal salmon-recovery machine continued to grind across the Northwest. The Seattle installment of the salmon and dams controversy was mild compared with the Pasco version, drawing from the region's largest city a modest crowd that lacked the emotional intensity of several other fish hearings in recent weeks.

But the Puget Sound - ground zero for many Northwest environmental movements - did rouse substantial support for breaching the four dams above Pasco on the lower Snake River.

American Rivers, the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Northwest Energy Coalition and many other environmental groups paraded speaker after speaker in front of the bureaucrats to decry the slack-water Snake and by implication the juvenile fish transport system in boats and trucks.

"We've made the rivers safe for wheat and the highways safe for salmon," said Bill Arthur with the Sierra Club. "There is something fundamentally wrong with that. We need a quadruple bypass."

With the cry for dam breaching came a persistent demand from environmentalists that the federal government find some way to make up for the lost barge transportation and irrigation that would result from a free-flowing Lower Snake.

"We should direct our attention toward making a smooth transition away from reliance on dams," said Connie Kelleher of Seattle. "Dam removal need not be economically painful."

Environmentalists, however, didn't completely carry the day as about 100 Eastern Washington farmers and politicians arrived by caravan to tell federal agents dam breaching is risky, extreme and unwarranted. A bus chartered by farm groups left Spokane at 4 a.m. Tuesday and swept through the Columbia Basin, gathering passengers from nearly every town in its path.

"It's critical they hear from us," said Alice Parker of Royal City, executive director of the Columbia Basin Development League. "They really are dependent on us in Eastern Washington more than they realize."

Grant County made a particularly large showing. "I think just the sheer numbers showing up in downtown Seattle has made some impact," said county Commissioner LeRoy Allison, one of many who tried to convince the panel that the price of dam breaching is too high.

For instance, nearly 50 members of the state Legislature sent Republican caucus research analyst Tom Davis to Seattle to make that same point and support a recent anti-breaching stance by Gov. Gary Locke.

"Who will pay for the more than $500 million worth of infrastructure improvements to the state's transportation system caused by dam breaching?" Davis asked. "Our concern is that the state's taxpayers would be saddled with this cost."

The legislators also questioned the environmental benefits of dam breaching if, as predicted, it means massive increases in trucks on regional highways and new gas-fired power plants.

But in all the doom-saying about fish, power rates, farmers and all the rest, nothing incited the crowd quite like five of Seattle's Raging Grannies with their pompons, eccentric garb and salmon song.

"Boop, boop, diddum," sang the self-described radical environmentalists. "Your luck is overdrawn, 'cuz you'll never make it up the river to spawn."

All the while, Ephrata's Ladd Mitchell, stationed at the Save Our Dams booth in the next room, was besieged by a dozen elementary school students covered in anti-dam stickers and loaded with questions. "We tried to get them to understand that this question is much bigger than just some dams," he said.

For Jeremy Brown of Bellingham, it's about his job. Amidst all the hand-wringing about spiritual demands and moral imperatives of saving fish, the veteran ocean fisherman would just like his old job back. Given the poor economics and federal limitations on ocean harvest of salmon, Brown has converted his boat to catch far-ranging albacore tuna.

He compared the salmon declines with the total collapse of a farmer's crop and considers himself luckier than most that he could switch "crops." In the early 1970s, he said, Washington's waters supported about 2,000 family salmon fishing operations. Just a tiny fraction of those boats went out last year, he said, leaving coastal towns to rust.

"The docks are sinking because of the weight of the grass growing on them," he said.

Brown figures dam breaching offers the best hope for revived fish economies, but he doesn't want Eastern Washington farmers to go through what he did when the runs dried up. "We need to make a future for them," he said. "We need these guys."

Until something changes, however, Brown does other things and waits. "I maintain this illusion that one of these days I will be able to fish salmon," he said.

Through several hours of such testimony, Munio Takahashi Makuuchi, a Seattle artist, sat on the floor in the middle of the main aisle and cut three-dimensional origami salmon out of orange paper and flung them toward the water coolers.

"I am making a statement quietly," he said. "They go, we go.

"Damn the dams."

Mike Lee
Environmentalists Push Dam Breaching at Seattle Hearing
Tri-City Herald, March 1, 2000

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