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Call to Breach Dams Upsets Governors

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, February 23, 2000

Gov. John Kitzhaber's proposal takes leaders of Washington, Idaho and Montana by surprise and may harden their opposition

Gov. John Kitzhaber's dramatic endorsement of breaching federal dams as a way to save salmon has caught the three other Northwest governors by surprise and may have triggered the unintended consequence of hardening their opposition to the proposal.

Aides to Govs. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho and Marc Racicot of Montana said Tuesday that their governors are disappointed Kitzhaber chose to highlight disagreement within the region rather than work toward a unified effort to recover Columbia Basin salmon. And a spokesman for Washington Gov. Gary Locke said Locke's opposition to breaching remains adamant.

"It's unfortunate that Gov. Kitzhaber felt at this time he had to come forward and say that breaching is his option," said Kempthorne spokesman Mark Snyder. "Gov. Kempthorne still wants to step forward and offer a regional plan that does not involve breaching."

Racicot, whom Kitzhaber telephoned a half-hour before the Oregon governor delivered his Eugene speech, told Kitzhaber that "he was disappointed in terms of regional unity," said Stan Grace, one of Racicot's two appointees to the Northwest Power Planning Council. "Racicot told Kitzhaber that this is a place that we'll have to part," Grace said.

Locke remains opposed to breaching, said Bob Nichols, Locke's natural resources adviser. "Locke's position hasn't changed; he can't imagine any argument leading him to believe that breaching makes sense," Nichols said Tuesday.

But Locke is pleased that Kitzhaber, who argued that breaching would meet the region's needs, also said that in the absence of support for breaching, Kitzhaber would work with the other governors to develop alternative salmon-saving plans, Nichols said.

Kitzhaber's speech last week, the strongest argument yet for breaching by any Northwest political leader, comes as the federal government weighs a proposal to allow water to flow around four dams on the lower Snake River. The action, which would leave the dams intact but allow the river to drop to its natural, free-flowing state, would end hydropower production at the dams and render a 140-mile stretch of river unpassable by barges that now travel as far east as Lewiston, Idaho.

Kitzhaber on Tuesday acknowledged the backlash. But he said he maintains good relationships with all three governors and plans to discuss salmon recovery options when he meets them in Washington, D.C. this weekend.

He reiterated that the region needs to consider breaching if it wants to save Snake River salmon.

"Breaching is a responsible and cost-effective option," he said. "If we are committed to restoring the ecosystem we are going to have to make some tough choices. We are going to have to deal with some tough politics and some tough economics. The worst thing we can do is simply not choose."

Kitzhaber said he is not surprised by the vehement negative reaction from groups such as the Oregon Cattleman's Association, which strongly oppose breaching.

"Some people in certain parts of the state were very upset by it; other people endorsed it," he said. "That's what you expect when you tear the lid off a can of worms and force people to look at it."

One goal of his speech, Kitzhaber said Tuesday, was to show that saving salmon will not be less painful if breaching is dismissed.

"The people in Congress, the Patty Murrays of the world who say no one is interested in doing this, that's fine," an irritated Kitzhaber said. "What are they interested in? What are they willing to step up and do? I can tell you right now that if you don't want to breach the dams because we don't know for sure it will work, let me tell you a couple of things that will work: You stop all harvest -- that helps the fish. Stop road-building on private forest land and stop cutting trees -- that works. Fence all the cattle out of the stream -- that works. Those are the kind of things we are going to be looking at."

Reaction to Kitzhaber's speech was positive in the Juneau office of Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles.

While Knowles has not taken a position on Snake River dams, he has called the dams "killing fields" that affect fisheries off Southeast Alaska. Harvest levels are limited to protect wild Snake River fall chinook, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act but mix with other fall chinook targeted by Alaska trollers.

"The speech was taken as a bold proposal, one that addresses real concerns," said Knowles spokesman Bob King. "No one here thought it was out of line at all."

Kitzhaber's speech was delivered last Friday to the Oregon chapter of the American Fisheries Society one day after that organization unanimously passed a resolution saying the four dams must be breached if salmon are to be restored. Received with standing ovation, Kitzhaber has since been lauded by conservationists, tribes and others who support breaching.

Cecil Andrus, former governor of Idaho, on Tuesday praised Kitzhaber for his courage.

But Andrus said he did not think Kitzhaber's speech would change the minds of the Northwest's state or federal political leaders, who Andrus predicts will remain opposed to breaching dams until it is too late and Idaho salmon are extinct.

"I just don't see the power structures and political brokers of Washington, Idaho and California having the intestinal fortitude that the governor of Oregon has," Andrus said.

"John Kitzhaber said what he thought was right. He said something has to be done for salmon, and he thought this was the best way to go."

Conservationists say that Kitzhaber's position gives them new ammunition in their battle to build political support for breaching. Jeff Curtis, western conservation director of Trout Unlimited, said Tuesday he would cite Kitzhaber when he meets with Northwest members of Congress later this week.

"Whenever we've gone back to D.C., someone asks, 'Who do you have with you?' " Curtis said. "Now we've got John Kitzhaber, and he's the one who's thought about this the most. That's huge."

No representative or senator from Oregon, Washington or Idaho has publicly supported breaching, however. Some, particularly U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., have strongly opposed it and made it clear that under no circumstance could they imagine breaching to be economically viable.

Related Links:
Governor John Kitzhaber's American Fisheries Society Speech

Jonathan Brinckman
Call to Breach Dams Upsets Governors
The Oregonian, February 23, 2000

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