White House to Delay a Decision
by Douglas Jehl
WASHINGTON, July 19 -- In a decision on an issue politically charged in the Pacific Northwest, the Clinton administration will postpone by at least five years a plan that could have led to the breaching of four major Snake River dams for the benefit of wild salmon.
Instead, the administration will propose a menu of smaller steps intended to protect the salmon and other fish from a dozen endangered species, in part by placing logs along riverbeds to provide the fish with an illusion of home.
The new steps, which are to be made public next week, were outlined today by administration officials. The proposal was portrayed as an alternative to more severe measures that faced opposition by elected officials in the Northwest. But it will also reverberate across the politically important region.
The dams, in Washington State, are part of a cluster on the Snake River and the Columbia River that interrupt the fishes' migratory path. But they also generate enormous quantities of electricity, and in the debate over their fate, the potential cost to consumers of electricity in the region has weighed heavily.
Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, has already declared his opposition to any breaching of the dams. By contrast, Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, has refused to comment directly on the issue.
An administration move to put off any decision about breaching the dams could insulate Mr. Gore from criticism from environmentalists, who have argued that more needs to be done soon to repair the damage to the habitat of the endangered fish.
The decisions about the dams are being weighed by several federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, with the ultimate decision being made by the White House.
The vice president has cast himself as an environmentalist, but a decision made in the name of federal agencies could help to shield him from attack by those who might seek to portray the administration as an enemy of economic development.
Asked about the administration's decision this morning, Mr. Gore told reporters that he was "going to bring all of the parties together to come up with a solution that respects the environment and does not cause an upheaval in the economy."
Asked whether he agreed with the administration's decision, Mr. Gore sidestepped the issue. "I'm going to review it carefully. I think that what's needed is to bring all of the stakeholders together."
Later, the Gore campaign released a statement from the vice president that said, in part, "I feel it provides a solid foundation for restoring the salmon while strengthening the economy of the Pacific Northwest."
The statement also says that "if sufficient progress toward recovery is not being made, we may then have no choice but to pursue options such as dam breaching. But we must first exhaust all reasonable alternatives."
Still, news of the postponement prompted expressions of concern from Ralph Nader, the Green Party nominee who is running well in Washington, Oregon and other Northwest states where polls have shown the race between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush to be extremely close.
Mr. Nader made it clear that he was eager to join the debate. "Everybody knows the dams cannot be removed overnight, but you have to move toward that goal," he said.
The decision to postpone any breaching of the dams was reported today in USA Today. Details were discussed by administration officials who cited testimony that was to have been given before Congress today.
In remarks prepared for those sessions, which were postponed, George Frampton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, tried to explain why the administration had elected not to recommend that the dams be breached as soon as possible. Mr. Frampton said such efforts "may not be essential" to recovering salmon habitat "and may not be sufficient."
As an alternative, at least for now, the new proposal calls for several other measures, including steps aimed at making it easier for fish to overcome the Snake River dams.
The progress made by the salmon and other fish toward recovery is to be monitored for the next five years. If it is not sufficient to remove the fish from the list of endangered species, other actions would have to be taken, including a renewed review of whether to breach the dams.
A spokesman for American Rivers, an environmental advocacy group, said the group would be watching to see whether the final plan provided adequate guarantees both now and in the future.
"The science shows that the dams need to be removed to save salmon," said the spokesman, Justin Hayes. "And if we delay too long, salmon runs, and even extinction, are at stake."
In interviews, administration officials have signaled that a preferred course might have been to have directed that the dams be breached.
But such a step would require the approval of Congress, including members of the Northwest delegations who have been steadfastly opposed to such an overhaul.
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