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Lawyer Sees Hope for Dam Breaching, Salmon

by Greg Stahl
Idaho Mountain Express, October 15, 2003

Calls Bush administration ‘an interlude’

"When we began to understand what had happened to our rivers, the more we found,
the more we discovered how badly we had treated them."

— CHARLES WILKINSON, Environmental lawyer

Calling the George W. Bush administration "an interlude" to river recovery in the West, one of the region’s premiere natural resource lawyers gave salmon and steelhead advocates some seeds of hope last week that breaching of four lower Snake River dams may yet occur.

"My sense is that the four lower Snake River dams are going to come out," said Charles Wilkinson, a Boulder, Colo., environmental lawyer, professor, historian and author.

As part of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts’ two-month-long multidisciplinary project, "The Whole Salmon," the famed attorney and University of Colorado professor gave a lecture to about 50 local residents on Thursday, Oct. 16, in Ketchum.

Wilkinson compared the debate over lower Snake River dam breaching to the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula, where two hydroelectric dams could soon be removed to clear the path for migrating salmon. When that happens, possibly as soon as 2007, Wilkinson said, there will be a great celebration for free-flowing rivers.

Also, he said, the stage will be set for breaching of the four lower Snake River dams.

"It will be a great moment in the history of the West. It’s the same decision-making arena. The two (Snake and Elwha) are umbilically tied together by the salmon," Wilkinson said. "I hope you go to that celebration (at the Elwha). I’ll be there, and when you get home, keep your bags packed for that celebration on the Snake."

Wilkinson said he believes breaching of the four lower Snake dams was very close to occurring in 2000, the year the federal government released a now-defunct biological opinion advocating salmon recovery measures other than dam breaching.

It was also the year Bush was elected president of the United States.

"Here’s how close it was: If Al Gore had been elected, the decision to remove the lower Snake dams probably would have been made," Wilkinson said. "To be sure, there’s not going to be any action with this administration, but all progress has interludes. That’s all this administration is going to be—an interlude—and we’re going to have steady improvement."

Wilkinson said that since the late-1970s, when the last large dams were built in the United States, Westerners have fostered a burgeoning river restoration movement that continues to grow.

"When we began to understand what had happened to our rivers, the more we found, the more we discovered how badly we had treated them," he said.

He said it is an objective fact that Americans have treated their rivers badly. He also said it is an objective fact that the manipulation of rivers has produced desirable outcomes, like electricity, recreation opportunities, flood control and irrigated pastures and fields.

"While we have to heal the rivers, we should try to keep what’s good of how we’ve built it up," he said.

Going deeper into the minutia-laden world of water law, Wilkinson said that if the laws governing water use in the West were to be written today, they would most likely be based on a renewable leasing system similar to regulations that govern public lands cattle ranching and "almost all other natural resources." Water would also come at a price rather than be given away for free, he said.

"The traditional language of water has also been an obstacle to change," he said.

What’s more, water concepts, laws and philosophies aren’t inaccessible to the public, he said, adding that the perception that water is too complex for the lay person to understand has been fostered, in part, to keep the public out of the discussion.

Idaho, Wilkinson pointed out, is one of the country’s bastions of healthy rivers and wilderness, with reaches of the Salmon, Middle Fork of the Salmon, Selway and Clearwater rivers running clean and relatively untouched.

"But however long your list is, it’s a short list of rivers that can provide us with those qualities," he said.

Greg Stahl
Lawyer Sees Hope for Dam Breaching, Salmon
Idaho Mountain Express - October 15, 2003

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