Many in the Northwest thought they’d killed the idea of breaching four dams on the Snake River in Washington when they convinced the Clinton administration to pass on it, and then George W. Bush became president. They celebrated too soon.

On May 7, U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland threw out the salmon-protection plan written by the Clinton administration and tossed dam-breaching back on the table.

Now, the messy and politically charged issue has been dropped into the lap of President Bush, who campaigned against dam breaching. He must confront the Endangered Species Act, the law that caused his father to lose the Pacific Northwest in 1992.

Let’s recap. The elder Bush could find no easy way out of a similar court decision in 1989, over the management of the northern spotted owl. He convened the Endangered Species Committee — the so-called God Squad, made up of officials in his administration — to overrule the law’s strict regulations. In the end, he saved neither owls nor the timber industry. Bill Clinton then exploited the uncertainty over logging jobs and won both Oregon and Washington.

Scientists say the four dams on the Snake River limit the recovery of salmon and steelhead that spawn upstream in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Even as an increase in food and low predator numbers in the ocean have allowed salmon numbers to rise elsewhere in the region, the Snake River’s wild fish have only been able to hold their own.

Clinton had approved a plan in 2000 that included a suite of habitat, hydro and hatchery improvements to save 12 stocks of endangered salmon and steelhead without removing the dams. But if these didn’t work, the plan called for reconsidering dam breaching in 2005 and 2008. That is why Judge Redden’s decision resurrects the biggest battle over the future of the West’s rivers.

If salmon advocates get their way, the judge will require Idaho farmers to send more water down the Snake to help salmon migrate. They will press for tough regulations that threaten shipping to Portland and upstream. Expect them to join force with right-wing opponents of public power, who want the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the power from the dams, brought under heel.

They also will continue to call for a comprehensive economic analysis of the costs of breaching dams. A 2002 report by the Rand Corp. said removing four dams on the lower Snake River might be good for the region’s economy; at the worst, it would likely have no impact. The report predicted that replacing power from the dams would create almost 15,000 new jobs.

Despite these facts in their favor, I think the only way environmentalists are going to convince the public to remove the dams is to get Congress to make amends to those who will lose out if the dams are breached. That means offsetting the loss of shipping; that means paying off the few farmers who would need to buy new irrigation pumps.

Judge Redden’s decision is not all good for salmon. The Clinton plan encouraged both state and private voluntary efforts to improve habitat throughout the Pacific Northwest. These programs are pivotal to recovery of many salmon runs that don’t have to pass through the four dams. A new plan might abandon these efforts.

Judge Redden could require the dams to come down. Some say there is legal precedent. But I think it is unlikely. The political reality is that a majority of voters in the region do not support breaching the four dams. Until the coalition supporting wild salmon can build a consensus, the dams will remain intact.

It is true that most voters in the region prize salmon as the physical manifestation of the region’s wild character. And it is true that President Bush lost both states in the last election, despite a strong showing from Ralph Nader. So what can Bush do? He can seek the most efficient, low-cost method of saving salmon and meeting the power and shipping needs of the region. He can work with the governors and tribal governments to develop a new process for writing a plan that is inclusive and realistic.

Or, he can choose the path of his father and try to exempt salmon from the Endangered Species Act.

Look where that got Dad.

Rocky Barker is a veteran reporter in the Northwest, and a fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy in Boise, Idaho.

Writers on the Range is a syndicated column service of High Country News. Contact editor Betsy Marston: betsym@hcn.org, 970-527-4898.