Sali and Minnick Clash Over
by Rocky Barker
In central Idaho politics, it was the equivalent of a bombshell.
At a Lewiston forum Thursday, U.S. Rep. Bill Sali said his opponent Walt Minnick supports breaching four dams on the Snake River to save Idaho's endangered salmon.
State Republicans shared a five-year-old Minnick quote to back it up.
But Minnick, a Democrat aiming at independents and moderate Republicans uneasy with Sali's brand of conservatism, said he has been consistent since he ran for the U.S. Senate more than a decade ago: He won't rule out breaching the four Washington dams because he supports collaborative efforts to find a solution to the long-time controversy.
Sali made his charge in a forum televised on KLEW-TV in Lewiston. Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko - a longtime leader of the Idaho Water Users - circulated an Associated Press story in 2003 that included the quote from Minnick.
"We will have salmon recovery in the upper Snake River in the near future, and I don't just mean a few, but millions," Minnick said in the story. "We only have hopefully one more lawsuit to say as a matter of law that if we're going to recover the salmon that dams have to come down now."
The story was about a speech given by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, an advocate for breaching the dams, at a fund-raiser in Ketchum.
"Pretty hard for Walt Minnick to deny this one," Semanko said.
Minnick said the quote took his opinion out of context. He said he was responding to the possibility that a federal judge would rule in favor of a lawsuit brought by environmentalists, sportsmen and Indian tribes. "My view has always been there has to be consensus for anything to get done," Minnick said Friday. "If there is ever going to be a solution other than gridlock it's going to be because the various interests groups get together and find another solution is preferable."
Sali's spokesman Wayne Hoffman said it is impossible to take that quote out of context.
"It's unambiguous," Hoffman said.
Dam breaching is one of the most polarizing issues in the Pacific Northwest. Most fisheries biologists say breaching the four federal dams downstream of Lewiston is the best and perhaps only way to recover Snake River salmon, once the most productive runs in the entire Columbia Basin.
No major elected officials in Idaho, Montana, Oregon or Washington are on record supporting breaching. But many, especially Democrats, have not ruled out breaching because of the science.
Sali introduced a congressional resolution opposing removal of the four dams early in 2007. The measure has no co-sponsors.
"I don't know that we asked for any," Hoffman said. "It's there to have a dialogue with other members of Congress on the issue." Sali supports protecting the dams and salmon, Hoffman said. "We think we can do both."
Minnick said if he's elected he will work to get farmers, Lewiston area groups, environmentalists and sportsmen to the table as has been proposed by GOP Lt. Gov. Jim Risch.
"The job of the political leader is to be an honest broker," Minnick said. "I think what Jim Risch is proposing is exactly the way to get this out of the judicial process and into the political process." memories of the 2003 meeting
Save our Wild Salmon executive director Pat Ford of Boise said he met with Babbitt, Minnick and former Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus the day after that 2003 fundraiser for lunch at the Arid Club.
There, Minnick and Andrus said environmental groups could never hope to get the four dams breached without building political support.
Andrus, who opposes dam breaching, said that would be impossible. Minnick, who grew up on a wheat farm in eastern Washington, took another tact.
"He said, You are going to have to talk to the wheat growers and see if there is something you can work out for them that works out for you,'" Ford recalled. "'You will need a win-win solution.'"
Andrus, a Minnick supporter, said Friday he remembered Minnick was pushing practical solutions. He said Republicans have been trying to misrepresent Minnick's views on the dams since 1996.
"That's just a bunch of malarkey," Andrus said. "The Republican state chairman is trying to salvage a congressman of his party who should not be resurrected."
Minnick's position on breaching came up during the 1996 election, when he challenged Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig. Ketchum's Idaho Mountain Express said then Minnick "believes serious consideration should be given to breaching the dams."
Minnick sent a letter to the weekly after its first story, challenging its characterization of his views.
"Never did I state that I favored breaching any of the dams in the Columbia-Snake river system," Minnick said in his letter.
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