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Soul Searching

by D. Michael Heywood for the editorial board
The Columbian, December 20, 1999

Another load of salmon plans
questions what matters to people of the Pacific Northwest

When Lewis and Clark introduced Western civilization to the Pacific Northwest nearly two centuries ago, up to 16 million fat salmon clogged the Columbia River system every year.

This coming year, maybe a million anadromous spawners will migrate to their natal waters, and most of those will be inbred domestics trying to bash their way into hatcheries.

The decades of decline may have been slowed by more than $3 billion worth of recent efforts. Now and then a wild run resurges from dozens to a few thousands. But almost every single wild salmon family in the Columbia basin hovers close to official designation as endangered. Many listed that way are all but extinct, and many are gone forever.

Comes now the latest effort to fix some of the damage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday released a $20 million plan for changing management of the Columbia system so as to sustain a handful of wild species. Its most notable highlight is official recognition of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommendation to breach four dams on the lower Snake River before it joins the Columbia stem. The corps does not, however, officially endorse the proposal to break open Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams.

Even mentioning the notion required considerable bureaucratic courage. Those dams mean civilization, and civilization has fought back. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., has been the loudest voice defending the dams, but he speaks for many individuals, communities and interests.

How dare the corps defy the political ban on dam-breach talk? Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Joan Jewett said Friday, "The purpose of all these documents being released is to start regional soul-searching."

Indeed. Where is our soul?

Ports on this stretch of the Columbia system are pressing to spend nearly $200 million to dig the navigation channel three feet deeper. Advocates figure bigger ships hauling more stuff could net the nation as much as $40 million more trade every year. Protests that the dredging might hasten salmon extinction are drowned out by the economic imperative.

Typically, when legislators representing Clark County had breakfast Friday with local officials and some 200 members of the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, all the talk was about building support for the dredging project. Salmon got almost no attention apart from a jab at U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., that he should tell the Clinton administration to make Alaskans stop catching our fish out in the ocean.

Is that really our soul?

D. Michael Heywood for the editorial board
Soul Searching
The Columbian, December 20, 1999

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