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A Stark Choice between the Salmon and the Dams

by Bill Hall
Lewiston Tribune June 29, 1999

Now we're getting down to brass tacks. An organization of fisheries scientists says that breaching the four dams below Lewiston will offer the best hope of saving salmon runs, but that organization -- quite professionally -- is leaving it to others to decide whether the fish are more valuable than other uses of the river.

The scientists confirm that dam breaching is probably the biggest and best means of preventing the death of the runs and maybe it is too late even for that.

But that does not, with all due respect to those who value the fish for recreational or environmental reasons, automatically settle the issue. However, it does tend to clear away the popular and, in some circles, desperate myth that there is no question both the dams and the fish can be saved.

Probably not.

Now it becomes a political decision as to which uses of the river the people and their political leaders value more -- the fish saved at any cost, or doom the fish and keep the benefits of the dams.

That, of course, is a rock and a hard place. Either choice is heartbreaking and wrong in some large measure. But the Idaho Chapter of the American Fisheries Society gave us the kindness of candor when it said by a vote of 184-16 that "if Americans wish to see harvestable runs of wild salmon and steelhead restored to the Snake River basin in the foreseeable future, then the lower four Snake River dams must be bypassed soon." Ted Koch, the group's president-elect, said "Even the most skeptical among us agreed that at a minimum, removing the dams would help salmon and steelhead greatly."

Koch specified that the organization is merely making a scientific diagnosis, rather than advocating breaching. However, the scientists are either politically naive or funning us on that score. The fact is, their opinion will intensify political pressure for breaching. And most of them probably know it.

But that doesn't make the statement scientifically inaccurate.

"The point is it's about as clear as it's going to be," Koch said, "and it's up to our political leaders to decide what the next step is. ... (if they say) 'Thank you for the information; we're not going to bypass the dams because they're too important economically or socially,' that's just fine for the chapter. We have no opinion on those issues."

Meanwhile; however, we have the likes of Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, still deep into denial, still pushing the unlikely line that we can have our fish and our dams, too:

"That's not my job, to create a perfect world," Craig said. "My job is to balance all the interests with the fish interests, to make sure Idaho saves its fish, maintains its slackwater, its irrigated economy and its hydro base."

Of course, the alleged perfect world is his own -- the blind faith that it is possible to have it all, including the fish. If he means that it is his job never to give up on that goal and to desperately find ways to make all these interests work together and survive, even if the effort is doomed, then bless his heart and wish him well. It's always good to have some cheerful guy around wearing happy faces.

But that kind of leadership isn't the need right now. Cheerleading won't change the threat the dams and fish pose to each other. We all have to get a little more realistic and abandon the naive belief this isn't a problem.

It's a problem. Fish, farmers and business people are up the river without a lot of great ideas on how to sort this out. We are better served now by leaders who grit their teeth and point this way or that way -- to dams or fish -- than by those wishful thinkers who say these interests don't impinge on each other. The scientists are probably right when they say we must choose. And if we don't decide soon, nature will choose for us.

Of course, that gives the stalling advantage to those who favor the dams over fish, as sunny Senator Craig probably realizes.

Quote of note

Far too often the choices reality proposes are such as to take away one's taste for choosing.

-- Jean Rostand

Bill Hall
A Stark Choice between the Salmon and the Dams
Lewiston Tribune - June 29, 1999

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