Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber spoke out in favor of removing the four Lower Snake River Dams to restore Northwest salmon runs. Now the former emergency room doctor – a veteran of resource battles in his home state – is a candidate to lead the U.S. Department of Interior.
Kitzhaber is on a short list for Interior secretary in the Obama administration. Three fellow Westerners’ names also appear on the list: U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.; U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif.; and U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona.
The fate of the four Lower Snake dams is a divisive issue. Construction of the dams turned Lewiston into an inland seaport and the hub of an interstate grain shipping industry. But the dams also took a toll on the region’s legendary salmon and steelhead runs. Many environmental groups argue that the dams – which produce less than 5 percent of the Northwest’s electricity – should be mothballed.
In Congress, Inslee supported keeping dam-breaching as an option. But the strongest voice among Northwest politicians for dam removal arguably belongs to Kitzhaber.
“Removing the four Lower Snake River dams is, at least for the Snake River salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act, the single most beneficial action we can take,” Kitzhaber said in a 2000 speech to the American Fisheries Society. “If we can move beyond the symbolism of the four Snake River dams … breaching emerges as a responsible and cost-effective option.”
Kitzhaber repeated the sentiment again in 2006 at the side of former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, who is also a dam-breaching advocate. Kitzhaber was not available for comment Monday.
His possible appointment evokes strong reactions.
“I think he’d be great for the job. He absolutely gets the salmon crisis,” said Bill Sedivy, executive director for Idaho Rivers United. “Most scientists agree with us, the surest way to restore the salmon is to remove the four dams on the lower Snake River.”
The new administration could open the door for new thinking about salmon, other fish advocates said.
“We have great hope that there’s going to be a more reasonable look at this whole issue,” said Sam Mace, Save Our Wild Salmon’s Inland Northwest project director in Spokane. “There’s other ways we can get really, true green energy that doesn’t involve the extinction of salmon.”
The Farm Bureau, the advocate of keeping the dams because of their role in irrigation and navigation, is also tracking the issue.
“Obviously, we have a keen interest in it,” said John Stuahlmiller, director of government affairs for the Farm Bureau, which represents 35,000 farmers in Washington. “If you have the director of an agency that’s prone to want to go there (dam breaching), that would be very concerning.”
The Port of Lewiston doesn’t take stances on political appointees, but opposes breaching the four Lower Snake dams, said David Doeringsfeld, port manager.
“We have to maintain our salmon and steelhead runs,” he said, “but that can be accomplished while maintaining the multiuse benefits of dams.”