Some Question President's Plan
by Associated Press
SPOKANE - In a state where unemployment is high, thousands of residents remain deployed in Iraq, and highways are choked and crumbling, President Bush is coming to talk about salmon.
It can be difficult to understand why a fish that is readily available in supermarkets is considered endangered, and why there are so many contradictory opinions about its survival.
But Columbia River Basin salmon are an icon of the Pacific Northwest, and the long-running battle to save wild runs exposes the state s political, cultural and social faultlines.
The breakdown goes like this: Environmentalists (generally well-off, urban and Democrats) insist that four dams on the Snake River must be removed to allow greater survival of the fish.
Business interests (many of them rural, tied to natural resource jobs and Republicans) insist that dams and fish can coexist.
In the middle are the vast majority of Northwesterns who like the idea of wild salmon, but also like the hydroelectric power and other benefits of the dams. They are the electoral prize that Bush is chasing in a state where Al Gore beat him 50 percent to 44 percent 2000.
Republican analysts contend that showing more concern for the environment will help Bush win affluent suburban voters in 2004.
Some people in downtown Spokane expressed puzzlement on Thursday about why Bush was focusing on fish.
"Jobs right now are real important to me. I don't have one," said Pamela Merritt, 50, as she filled out an unemployment insurance form in downtown Spokane.
While she thinks preserving salmon is important, it is not likely to be a defining issue for her. Jason Day, 18, of Spokane, said he didn't know much about the salmon controversy.
"I don't care about it," he said, as he read a book in a downtown bus station.
But many people do care, particularly environmental groups who mounted a furious campaign against Bush salmon policies this week. Many flooded journalists with reports saying Bush failed to protect salmon.
Chase Davis of the Sierra Club in Spokane said the long-term trend for Columbia River system wild salmon runs calls for extinction by the year 2020.
"Any statement made by Bush about there being a new trend that points to full recovery or even progress for the big fish is plain false," Davis said.
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, whose central Washington district is a center of the fish conflict, said salmon numbers are rising, largely because of federal recovery efforts.
"You simply can't refute that because that's what the record shows," Hastings said.
In a way they are both right.
When President Bush visits Ice Harbor Dam on Friday, he will be at a spot where less than 2,000 wild salmon were counted in 1995. By last year, the numbers had climbed to 36,000.
But critics contend the vast majority of the fish are genetically inferior hatchery salmon. They also contend naturally favorable ocean conditions, which are cyclical, are the main reason for the increase.
"We have seen in the past several years a reduction in the amount of protection provided to salmon runs," said Rob Masonis of American Rivers in Seattle. "The only reason that is not more visible is ocean conditions have masked some of the substantial losses."
For centuries salmon ran thick in the streams of the Northwest, enough so members of the Lewis and Clark expedition grew sick of the taste of the fish.
Salmon had religious significance to Indian tribes, who celebrated their return from the ocean each year and relied heavily on them for food. After the arrival of white settlers, salmon fishing and canning, and tourism associated with fishing, became big industries.
But starting in the 1930s, a series of dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers blocked migration of many young salmon to the Pacific Ocean, and blocked the path of millions of returning salmon to their spawning grounds.
The federal government has spent more than $3 billion on fish ladders, hatcheries and other measures to move the fish around the dams, and keep wild runs alive. But the numbers of wild fish returning to some spawning groups each year can be counted on one's fingers.
When Bush was campaigning here in 2000, he spoke of saving salmon and the dams.
"Washington faces important challenges, and there's no greater challenge than to save salmon," Bush said three years ago. "For all of us, those fish are a wonder of nature, and they must be preserved."
Bob Lohn, regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said federal agencies should get credit for relatively abundant returns of Columbia basin salmon in recent years.
Lohn, who will accompany Bush, said the president will reaffirm that it's possible to keep the dams and maintain healthy salmon runs.
But a federal judge last May rejected the government's salmon recovery plan as inadequate and gave the administration 12 months to fix it. That reopened the debate over whether the dams should be removed, which could cost $1 billion.
Supporters of dams say the region still relies on hydropower, and on the freight navigation dams make possible between the ocean and Lewiston, Idaho. They also contend that overfishing and ocean predators are more harmful to salmon than the dams, which are more than 30 years old.
"To suggest that the dams are the cause of diminishing runs is disingenuous," Hastings said.
Davis and other conservationists contend the Bush administration had secured less than 45 percent of the money needed for its salmon recovery plan, and that it sought frequently to gut protections for the fish.
Davis also said that water temperature in the lower Snake River, which is largely a series of slackwater reservoirs, often exceeds the federal Clean Water Act standard of 68 degrees in summer months.
"These high water temperatures are lethal to salmon," Davis said.
But Chris Vance, state GOP chairman, said the Sierra Club is basically a shill for Democrats.
"The Sierra Club is an incredibly partisan, increasingly left-wing organization," Vance said. "No one should take the Sierra Club seriously."
Several members of the Oregon state House of Representatives sent a letter to Bush this week urging him to save wild salmon.
"If your administration continues to encourage destruction of our forests, pollution of our rivers and management of our rivers without considering our fish and wildlife, the salmon will never be restored," the letter said.
There are many reasons why salmon must be saved, Masonis said.
One is the jobs created by commercial and sport fishing and related tourism, especially in rural areas.
Treaties with area Indian tribes in the 19th Century also guaranteed the Indians access to historic salmon fishing grounds. Extinction of the fish would lead to lawsuits, Masonis said.
Salmon also are key players in the Northwest ecosystem, and are consumed by 140 different animals, Masonis said.
"They are an essential linchpin of the ecological systems of the Pacific Northwest," he said.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs