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Snake Issue Spawns Millions

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, May 26, 2001

Though the Snake River's population of wild salmon may be dwindling, the cash flow the river generates for environmental groups continues to swell.

Conservation, fishing and environmental organizations have raised and spent millions of dollars over the last five years trying to convince Congress and the nation to take out the four dams that plug the Snake from Pasco to Lewiston.

"This whole issue is big business," said Bruce Lovelin, director of a Portland-based industry alliance that opposes dam removal. "It's an industry for the environmental groups, and they are profiting from it."

Pat Ford, director of Save Our Wild Salmon, challenges any assertion that conservation groups somehow are getting fat by sucking money from members.

"That's not how it works," he said. "What we try to achieve is ... set by our members (who are) deeply attached to the restoration of salmon on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. That is our job."

That job sometimes pays very well. Neither Save Our Wild Salmon nor Idaho Rivers United report any employees making more than $50,000.

But American Rivers President Rebecca Wodder draws a $108,000 annual salary to lead her group, which is at the forefront of the dam-removal effort. American Rivers participates in lawsuits and pays for anti-dam advertising in major newspapers on both coasts.

Apparently, the group's message of river restoration resonates with an increasing number of Americans -- including corporate supporters such as Alaska Airlines, Microsoft, Nordstrom and Office Depot. From 1994 to 1997, the most recent years for which numbers are available, gifts and grants to American Rivers climbed from $2.1 million to $3 million. Including dues from 30,000 members, the organization's most recent tax form shows $4.2 million in revenues.

American Rivers' budget for 1998 included $1.1 million for media efforts, newsletters and mailings about threats to the nation's waterways. About two-thirds of the group's expenses were for pursuing policies to protect the nation's rivers, reform hydropower rules and defend endangered species.

At Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, D.C., Snake River dam removal was important enough to list as a major program on the group's Internal Revenue Service form. The group, which saw a nearly threefold increase in contributions from 1996 to 1999, said it spent $218,000 on its 1999 campaign to remove the Snake dams and end "wasteful, unneeded projects" by the Corps of Engineers.

Idaho Rivers United, which also wants the dams out, spent $448,000 in 1999 distributing information and advancing its agenda to recover salmon and improve river systems.

When it comes to paying for environmental efforts in the Northwest, few foundations can better the record of the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation. It spent $6.3 million in 1999 on a plethora of issues.

The foundation, supported by old Northwest timber money, gave at least $400,000 in 1999 to dam-breaching advocates such as Idaho Rivers United and Save Our Wild Salmon.

"That creates a pretty large funding source that really is difficult for us to compete with," said Lovelin at the industry-port alliance. "We are really getting outspent on this issue."

Save Our Wild Salmon -- a coalition of several dozen conservation and sport fishing groups -- is the organization most closely aligned with efforts to remove the Lower Snake dams. It formed in 1991 and grew significantly in the late 1990s as it geared up for the Clinton administration's decision on dam removal.

In 1999, for example, the group took in $795,000 in grants and contributions, five times what it raised the year before, and generated one of the nation's largest conservation campaigns.

Save Our Wild Salmon doesn't file lawsuits, but it coordinates legal efforts by other groups and generates large amounts of media attention and paid publicity. Its 1999 media campaign cost more than $100,000, IRS documents show.

Despite the sharp increase in grants to Save Our Wild Salmon, Ford said money doesn't come easy. Part of the reason is that his alliance doesn't compete with member groups for dues-paying members, focusing instead on attracting foundation grants.

"There is an awful lot of interest in the Northwest among people generally in ... salmon recovery," Ford said. "It's high visibility and pretty popular if you care about the environment."

He anticipates the alliance continuing to grow at least through 2005, largely in an effort to monitor and influence pending decisions about the future of the Snake River dams. At a handful of checkpoints over the next several years, fish agencies will review salmon recovery efforts to determine if the dams should be breached.

"We don't intend to shrink back into the lower levels of funding and resources," said Ford, acknowledging that fund raising likely will be more difficult with dam breaching off the front pages. "It's a matter of convincing potential donors that this is a long-term effort ... and that we are making progress."

Mike Lee
Snake Issue Spawns Millions
Tri-City Herald, May 26, 2001

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