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Dams, salmon: same talk, some progress

A standing-room-only crowd packs a congressional field hearing Monday in Clarkston on the future of the four lower Snake River dams. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
A standing-room-only crowd packs a congressional field hearing Monday in Clarkston on the future of the four lower Snake River dams. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

CLARKSTON – Groups that have been arguing over the Snake River dams and endangered salmon for decades might be moving closer to a solution all sides can accept, U.S. Rep. Butch Otter said Monday.

Which is good, the Idaho Republican told more than 300 people gathered here for a hearing on salmon and the dams, because Congress and the federal courts aren’t likely to come up with a balanced solution.

“The last place in the world you want to turn everything over to, is us,” he said.

But just seconds after praising a panel of farmers, barge operators, tribal members, commercial fishing and utility representatives for their willingness to get along, Otter seemed eager to pick a fight with a federal judge who could order significant changes in the river system.

U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled last week that the latest federal study on salmon in the river is inadequate, and will consider a request this Friday for an injunction against it. Otter, Rep. Cathy McMorris of Eastern Washington and other Republicans are urging the Bush administration to appeal the ruling.

“He can say whatever he wants, but if we don’t fund it, he won’t get a damn thing done,” Otter said.

Monday morning’s hearing on dams, salmon and the Endangered Species Act was requested by Otter and other Inland Northwest Republicans, who said they were concerned over renewed calls for breaching or removing the four Snake River dams. Like most discussions of the volatile topic, it drew protesters from both sides. Members of the audience who entered the convention center passed placards that read “Save Our Salmon” and “Save Our Dams.”

Inside the hearing room, the panel of 10 invited speakers gave five-minute overviews of the positions they’ve been advocating for decades. Removing the dams would devastate the agricultural economy, forcing grain and other goods into more costly types of transportation, said Steve Appel of the Washington State Farm Bureau and Dale Alldredge of the Port of Lewiston.

It would eliminate as many as 50 jobs for people who dredge the system, said Curt Koegen of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

“Stay the course to keep our river a working river, with the dams in place,” said Mark Benson of the Potlatch Corp.

But Rebecca Miles, the chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal executive committee, said the Snake River is not a “working river” for salmon. The best available science says the salmon runs are in dire straits, she said, and all possible solutions, including dam breaching, should be on the table.

Discussions over how important dams are to the economy seem to suggest that salmon are not important, or at least not as important as the things the dams provide, said Virgil Lewis of the Yakama Tribe. But for tribes along the river, “salmon are as important as the air we need to breathe.”

When U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings of Central Washington wondered why the tribes and other groups can still catch endangered fish, he drew a sharp response from Miles.

“We are frustrated with having to justify our rights,” she said. “We are not an interest group. We are a sovereign group with legal rights.”

When the runs are low, the tribes govern themselves and stop fishing voluntarily, Lewis added.

Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sport Fishing Association said increased salmon runs from the removal of the dams could add as much as $3 billion to the economy through tourism and the fishing business.

“Salmon are big business, it’s just hard to recognize that,” Hamilton said. “They are like gold nuggets swimming through the river.”

When Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., the chairman of the subcommittee holding the hearing, asked what the economic impact of breaching the dams would be, no one on the panel could answer.

“That’s never been looked at, because it’s never been on the table,” Hamilton said.

Radanovich seemed incredulous. “Nobody’s studied the impact to this economy? That would really be valuable to the debate here.”

None of the panelists said they would support a rule that would prohibit the removal of any endangered fish species from the river for any purpose. Otter said later he took that as a sign that despite their long-standing disagreements, the “save the dams” and “save the salmon” forces seemed to be developing an appreciation for each other’s positions.

McMorris said the Endangered Species Act needs to be rewritten to focus more effort on species that can be recovered. “It needs to be updated and strengthened so that we can actually save species,” she said.

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