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Scientists Send Letter Asking Clinton
to Breach Lower Snake River Dams

by Brent Hunsberger
The Oregonian, December 19, 2000

More than 200 researchers call on the president to act soon
to stimulate salmon and steelhead recovery

In a last-minute but carefully calculated appeal, more than 200 scientists from 27 states called on President Clinton to breach the lower Snake River dams as part of the federal government's overall salmon recovery plan.

A three-page letter sent Monday to the White House called on Clinton to direct the federal National Marine Fisheries Service to remove the earthen portion of four lower Snake River dams if other recovery measures fail.

"For Snake River stocks, the weight of scientific evidence clearly indicates that the final biological opinion must commit the federal government to plan for breaching the lower Snake River dams in the near term, while simultaneously calling for immediate implementation of real, on-the-ground recovery measures and further research to help resolve remaining uncertainties," the letter said.

The letter comes three days before the National Marine Fisheries Service plans to issue its final strategy for recovering salmon runs, called its biological opinion. It repeats the contents of a March 1999 letter scientists sent to Clinton but which stopped short of calling for dam breaching.

"We hope that the president heeds the message of this letter more than NMFS," said Scott Bosse, a fish biologist with Idaho Rivers United who coordinated the letter. "If NMFS had been paying attention to what scientists from outside the agency had been saying, then this would have been a thank-you letter to the president as opposed to another warning."

Signees included 215 scientists, most from Northwest states and many affiliated with government agencies, tribes or universities. Among them were numerous and highly regarded researchers who have studied the Northwest's salmon problem for years, often under contract with government agencies responsible for stemming declining fish runs.

Bosse said he drafted the letter several months ago but refrained from releasing it during the tight presidential race, because signees didn't want "to have it be condemned for being released in the heat of an essential election."

Dam removal remains a touchy subject, because it would reduce the region's capacity to generate electricity from hydropower and prevent river barges loaded with grain and other commodities from reaching Lewiston, Idaho. President-elect George W. Bush opposes it.

But a federal recovery plan is required because 12 stocks of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin, including four that pass the Snake River dams, are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

White House officials in July announced their intention to focus on other recovery efforts -- habitat improvements and harvest cutbacks -- and, in the event of failure eight to 10 years from now, revisit the possibility of breaching.

But just two months earlier, the National Marine Fisheries Service was ready to recommend breaching as soon as 2006, according to an internal document obtained by The Oregonian.

Still, an agency spokesman Monday said he saw no indication that the Clinton administration would change its stand in its waning days, even as federal officials worked out last-minute details.

"Our view of dam breaching hasn't changed since we released the draft opinion," said Brian Gorman, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "Breaching is still on the table, but it doesn't make sense to make it the first choice economically or practically or politically or biologically."

Brent Hunsberger
Scientists Send Letter Asking Clinton to Breach Lower Snake River Dams
The Oregonian, December 19, 2000

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