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Economic benefits of dam-breaching exaggerated, UI study says

Associated Press

LEWISTON – A University of Idaho study requested by opponents of breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River suggests that environmentalists are exaggerating the economic benefits of restoring salmon and steelhead runs to 1950s levels.

Jay O’Laughlin, director of the Moscow-based school’s College of Natural Resources Policy Analysis Group, said last February’s report from Idaho Rivers United relies on inflated numbers to conclude that restored salmon runs could net the Idaho economy $544 million a year.

“Fishing is big business,” said O’Laughlin. “But it’s not as big as the IRU report would lead you to believe.”

Environmental groups such as the Boise-based Idaho Rivers United want to get rid of the dams they say have destroyed salmon runs by blocking endangered wild salmon as they swim upriver and killing young fish that get caught in dam turbines on their way to the Pacific Ocean. Wheatgrowers and timber advocates who send products on barges west toward the Pacific want to keep the dams that have turned Lewiston and Clarkston into inland ports.

Owen Squires, a member of the Pulp and Papers Resource Council, asked O’Laughlin to analyze the environmental group’s study.

In the analysis, O’Laughlin said he believes the environmental group’s study, conducted by Don Reading of Ben Johnson Associates, uses a flawed estimate of the number of fishing trips that would result if salmon runs were restored to 86,000, the average a half-century ago.

Idaho Rivers United said fishing trips for spring and summer chinook runs would rise to 271,000 per year – something O’Laughlin says is unlikely.

His argument: In 2001, 186,000 spring and summer chinook returned to Idaho, or 100,000 more fish than the 86,000 average of the 1950s.

But that year, the fishing season on 50 miles of rivers yielded only 125,000 trips.

O’Laughlin says that even though more than 1,000 miles of rivers could be opened to fishing – far more than the 50 miles in 2001 – if salmon runs are restored, more river miles aren’t likely to double the number of fishing trips unless the number of returning salmon greatly exceed 86,000.

“I think they have overestimated the number of trips there would be,” said O’Laughlin, whose analysis also found that an economic multiplier used by Idaho Rivers United was probably unrealistically optimistic and that the original study improperly calculated how much economic impact comes from fishing trips.

Officials at Idaho Rivers United say they are sticking to their study, saying that people shouldn’t forget that salmon are an important component of Idaho’s economy – and could be even more important if runs recover.

This year, only six sockeye salmon made it as far as Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho. More than a century ago, thousands of these fish that turn red as they swim upstream gave the lake its name.

For his study, Reading said he was using numbers generated by the group and using them in economic models to generate the total impact of $544 million. He said his study assumes not only recovered fish runs but also hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and guide services that could be built up around the runs.

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