the film
Commentaries and editorials

Governors Unveil Plan to Rescue Salmon, Steelhead

by Ken Miller
The Idaho Statesman, July 26, 2000

Broad statements avoid discussion of breaching dams

Gerry Melendez - Idaho Gov Dirk Kempthorne signs a four-state salmon recovery plan alongside Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber during a news conference Tuesday at the Statehouse.  The regional plan, which offers general recommendations for the protection and restoration of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin, was agreed upon by the governors of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne joined the Northwest's three other governors Tuesday, united behind a set of broad recommendations they hope will help rescue the region's 12 endangered runs of salmon and steelhead.

But the governors' recommendations avoid any mention of breaching the four Lower Snake River hydroelectric dams and environmentalists say they'll head back to court to try to bust the dams rather than risk the threat of extinction.

The governors hailed their recommendations, which are really statements of political consensus, as a "historic" agreement among the chief executives of Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Montana."

"This was not easy, it is fair to say," Kempthorne said. "But we can build upon a consensus that can bring about the recovery of salmon in this region."

The governors' plan, unveiled just two days before the Clinton administration releases a much more detailed plan Thursday in Portland, calls for recovery measures such as increasing stream flow, boosting hatchery production, and artificially moving salmon around the fish-killing dams and turbines.

"This does not come forth as a document that supports breach," Kempthorne said. "It's a list of things that are doable, and we can do them now."

Joining Kempthorne in releasing the recommendations were fellow GOP Gov. Marc Racicot of Montana and Democratic Govs. John Kitzhaber of Oregon and Gary Locke of Washington. Racicot participated via telephone Tuesday. Locke was tending to personal business and did not participate.

Salmon are a living icon of the wild character of the Pacific Northwest. The fish still produce millions of dollars in income for fishing-related businesses and spiritual fulfillment for the region's Indians.

The governors' report, while sketchy on details, calls for a long-term plan to reduce salmon predation by birds and marine mammals; continuing current levels of tribal ceremonial and subsistence harvest but reviewing commercial fishing; creating "salmon sanctuaries" to protect key fish habitats; and fine-tuning dam operations to improve fish passage "so long as the modifications do not jeopardize the region's reliable electricity supply."

In their letter to federal agency officials, the governors called for "a regional approach consisting of specific federal, state, and regional plans that protect both our salmon and our communities," which can be worked out among state, federal, and tribal governments by January.

"The answers are not going to come from Washington, D.C.," Kempthorne said. "They're going to come from Idaho and from Oregon and Montana and from Washington." He said Idaho's role in salmon recovery may be the most significant, given that most of the fish spawn and die in Idaho.

"In many ways, Idaho is ground zero to the salmon debate," the governor said.

Kitzhaber, the only governor who supports breaching the dams, said the recommendations are a breakthrough for the four states.

"Five years ago, there was virtually no dialogue between Northwest governors on the issue of salmon recovery," he said. "This document represents a substantial and meaningful commitment to the restoration of the Columbia River ecosystem. This addresses all of the '4-H's' of salmon recovery."

The so-called "4-H" recovery plan includes restoring salmon habitat, controlling harvests of the fish, reforming the hydropower system in the region, and using hatcheries to augment fish stocks until wild salmon populations rebound.

But in the governors' plan, one of those "H's" is missing, fishing and conservation groups charged, arguing that it doesn't adequately deal with hydropower dams.

"I'm frustrated they left out any real fish recovery measures," said Mitch Sanchotena of Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited. "It looks like they want to continue to place the burden on the victims of the federal dams -- the fish."

Scott Bosse of Idaho Rivers United said U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh may not accept the proposal because it won't meet the requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act to recover the fish.

"Make no mistake," Bosse said, "this case is going to go to court. There are probably a lot of good things in this plan. The problem is, the governors have proposed a solution without identifying the problem," which he said is the dams. "There is no excuse to defer the most important decision that has to be made."

State officials agreed the governors' plan won't have an immediate impact on salmon and steelhead recovery. Rather, they said they hoped the recommendations would be used by federal fish and river managers as a starting point.

The Clinton administration, which will release a number of fish-recovery "principles" on Thursday in Portland, has already said that it won't recommend consideration of breaching the Snake River dams until 2008, and only then if the fish have not met certain recovery standards, which have not yet been disclosed.

Whatever the final outcome, the recovery efforts will be expensive. While he declined to place a dollar estimate on the cost of implementing the governors' strategy, Kitzhaber said it would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

"This will require a substantial commitment from the federal treasury in the Pacific Northwest," Kitzhaber said.

And while much of the cost of salmon recovery has been borne in recent years by Bonneville Power Administration rate-payers, the Oregon governor said it's time the rest of the country contribute.

Kitzhaber said breaching will continue to be a hot topic in the region, but given that nobody expects the dams to be breached for another decade, he said it's more important to begin taking other steps immediately to help the fish.

"The questions of whether we're going to breach the dams misses the larger question of whether or not we're going to do anything," he said.

Kempthorne opposes the dam breaching, but left the door open to future consideration.

"I don't rule it out, but I don't want it to be the first thing on the list," Kempthorne said.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, congratulated the governors "for taking a big step in the right direction" and for setting aside regional and political differences in trying to launch salmon recovery efforts.

Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association in Boise, said his group was pleased that the governors didn't recommend major changes in Snake River water flow "augmentation."

"While we certainly do not agree with everything contained in the governors' strategy, we believe that it contains many important elements," Semanko said. "We are heartened by the governors' recognition that so long as the flow augmentation program continues, water must be acquired on a voluntary basis from willing sellers, pursuant to sate law."

Scott Corwin of the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative, a regional power co-op owned by 11 electric rural electric cooperatives, said the governors' plan is "fairly general," adding: "The challenge will be in holding this group together as it moves into the devilish details.

"We've long maintained that a comprehensive approach can recover fish without further deteriorating the hydro-system," Corwin said.

Ken Miller
Governors Unveil Plan to Rescue Salmon, Steelhead
The Idaho Statesman, July 26, 2000

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation