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Region Unanimous: Dams Must Go

by Mike Stark
The Daily Astorian, February 16(?), 2000

Breaching seen as essential action to aid salmon

Federal officials got swamped at the mouth of the Columbia River with a clear and impassioned message Tuesday night: Tear out the four lower Snake River dams.

For nearly three hours, a steady procession of local residents and members of fishing and conservation groups talked about the decline of salmon runs over the last three decades, repercussions on the community and the desire to bring the salmon back.

Nearly everyone who spoke told the federal government that tearing down the Snake River dams is one of the best ways to ensure salmon's return - and help revive a struggling commercial fishing industry.

Representatives from federal agencies - including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Marine Fisheries Service and the Bonneville Power Administration - were in Astoria Tuesday for the fourth of 15 public meetings in the Pacific Northwest focusing on salmon issues.

The problem, speakers said, is that young salmon can't make it past the dams on their way to the ocean to mature. When smolt suffer, so do salmon populations and communities that depend on fishing.

"You can't raise cows without calves and you can't have salmon without smolts," said Dick Hellberg, a commercial fishermen for 40 years who lives in Warrenton. "It's that simple."

The cost of not removing the dams, several people said, is salmon extinction and a profound change in the way of life for the lower Columbia River.

"Extinction is an irretrievable consequence," said Jim Martin, who worked for 30 years as a biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "If we make a mistake now and lose these fish, how in the hell are we going to explain it to our children?"

Although the federal groups were looking for public input on a number of new policies to improve salmon runs, much of the focus has been on the corps' study of the lower Snake River dams.

Many scientists say breaching the dams, which were built in the 1960s and 70s in eastern Washington, is one of the most important ways to help restore lagging salmon runs.

But the corps' Col. Eric Mogren said breaching the Snake dams will deal only with a small portion of the salmon stocks listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Any credible salmon recovery plan has to look at a range of issues, like hydropower, harvest, hatcheries and habitat.

"The problem in front of us isn't just about the Snake River dams, it's much bigger than that," Mogren said.

Tuesday's unified call for breaching the dams is in stark contrast to a public meeting Thursday in Clarkston, Wash., where more than 1,000 people spent 11 hours urging the government to keep the dams in place. Losing the dams, they said, would mean economic disaster for communities that rely on the irrigation they provide and barging for crops, especially wheat.

Many at the Astoria meeting said they empathized with the problems that rural upriver communities might face if the dams come down, and several said the government should subsidize programs to soften the blow. But the consensus held that the dams have to come down to ensure the future of salmon and lower river communities.

"We've lost 25,000 jobs in Astoria because of the salmon problem," said Steve Fick, owner of Fishhawk Fisheries, a fish processing plant in Astoria. "I want to know to know why a job in Lewiston is more important than a job in Astoria.

"The fishing community has paid dearly for the loss of salmon. We can't and shouldn't be forced to pay any more."

Fick suggested that if the dams are breached, the government subsidize transportation from Lewiston to Tri-Cities, Wash., where goods could then be barged down the river.

"It is clear that more is harvested from the Columbia River than fish," said Bruce Buckmaster, president of Astoria's Salmon For All.

"We strongly support an equitable commitment on the part of all harvesters to balance the benefits of their harvest with the responsibility of good stewardship. The harvesters of fish have earned the right to ask our fellow harvesters to share the burden and responsibility of salmon recovery."

"We must bite the bullet and do it," said John Westerholm, a longtime local fisherman and member of Salmon for All and the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union.

Until the Snake River flows free, he said, fish and fishing will continue to struggle.

"Astoria is a town that fish built," said Glen Spain, director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents West Coast fishing groups. Over the last 30 years, the community has been hit hard by the declining fishing industry, he said.

"It's fishermen, many of whom are in this room, that are endangered species," Spain said.

Although other measures should be pursued to bring back salmon, he said, "none of those will succeed without addressing those other four dams."

No one should be surprised that the Snake River dams have harmed the fishing industry, said Chinook, Wash., resident Les Clark of the Northwest Gillnetter Association. He remembers discussing the dams 30 years ago when they were being built.

"We knew when those four dams went in at that time that we were road kill," he said. The problem now, he said, is that water is important to farmers and fishermen alike, he said. "We have to come up with a balance."

Ken Martin, a local gillnetter for 40 years, said it was "unbelievable" that the corps' economic study of dam breaching predicted only a few million dollars in improvements for the commercial fishing industry. Several have complained the corps' study did not take into account how breaching the dams would affect the fishing industry beyond the Snake River, including the lower Columbia.

Native Astorian Don Abing said it's difficult to know the rich salmon history of this area and see how it's been degraded.

"I'm sad to not be able to pass anything but pictures of this sport as a young lad fishing for chinook salmon bound for the Snake River," Abing said.

Like many who testified, Astoria City Council member Doug Thompson urged the dams breached and voiced opposition to the corps' plan to dredge the Columbia River shipping channel. NMFS approval of the dredging project has taken its toll with the public's confidence on the lower river, he said. "I don't think NMFS can talk to us very credibly about habitat issues," he said.

Only one audience member offered concerns about taking down the dams. Bob Bernert, who runs an Oregon City-based barge service, said he was worried that without the dams, world hunger and global warming will increase. By removing slackwater that eases barging, more fossil fuels will be burned with trucks and trains, he said. With agricultural shipping compromised, food distribution systems will suffer, he added.

Mike Stark
Region Unanimous: Dams Must Go
The Daily Astorian, February 16(?), 2000

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