Salmon Salvation

Will a new political order be enough to finally bring the dams down?

  • By Paul Lachine
  • By Paul Lachine
  • By Paul Lachine
  • By Paul Lachine
 

Page 5

The hurdles include the ports of Lewiston, Clarkson and Whitman County, and the region's aluminum industry -- which, with its aging smelters and stiff international competition, continues to shrink. Public utilities that benefit from the hydro system's subsidized power also have long opposed dam removal, but even that appears less insurmountable than it was in the 1990s. Pacific Northwest wind generation capacity, which also enjoys tax subsidies, is expected to reach at least 6,000 megawatts by 2013, a sizeable portion of the region's power demand.

But BPA's clout will be the most difficult to overcome. The agency is able to keep a low profile -- it's headquartered in Portland instead of Washington, D.C., and is primarily funded through power sales and transmission fees, not congressional appropriations. It is extremely adept at looking out for its own interests, maintaining a government relations office in Washington, D.C. And though there are laws prohibiting government agencies from lobbying, the agency has paid a firm named Washington2 Advocates about $700,000 over the last seven years to be its eyes and ears on Capitol Hill.

  Monthly work reports to BPA show Tony Williams from Washington2 talking to members of Congress about Judge Redden's court and salmon recovery. At a golfing fund-raiser for U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson in 2006, Williams assured BPA, "I'll be able to talk directly to (Simpson) and his staff." Williams also is a contributor to Sen. Murray's campaign coffers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. BPA insists that the firm has stayed strictly within the law.

"BPA is more politically active than any federal agency I deal with," says Dan Seligman, a Seattle attorney, who publishes BPAWatch.com. "The current administrator, Steve Wright, like many of his predecessors, is politically savvy and knows how the game is played in D.C." Still, Seligman, who has worked for public power utilities,  acknowledges that BPA has a difficult task balancing power demands and fish needs. "No matter what it does, someone is going to complain."

The BPA and other federal agencies were able to use their political savvy and sizeable financial resources to win the support of some of the tribes. Last spring's settlement calls for the agencies to fund $900 million in habitat and hatchery projects over the next decade. In return, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the Yakama, Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes were required to recant all of their scientific analysis critical of the federal government's salmon plans and cheerlead the agencies' current biological opinion.

Wright "has the authority to allocate huge amounts of money without any oversight," says Sando, former Idaho Fish and Game director. "He was able to use the power of the purse to dictate an end game, particularly for the tribes."

Since the agreements were signed, a panel of independent scientists tasked with reviewing these projects questioned whether 11 of 14 BPA-funded efforts would benefit salmon or other wild fish. 

The Nez Perce and Spokane tribes, which also have treaty rights to salmon, have their own problems with the settlements. After some negotiation with BPA, they opted to remain part of a legal challenge to the current salmon recovery plan along with a coalition of conservation groups, sport and commercial fishing interests and the state of Oregon.

"This was an attempt to silence the tribes on dam breaching being the best way to recover endangered salmon," says Rebecca Miles, who serves on the Nez Perce Executive Committee. "The Nez Perce couldn't allow themselves to be silenced on Snake River dam removal. We could not recant the science. And the Nez Perce couldn't sign an agreement that included supporting a (biological opinion) we knew was illegal under the Endangered Species Act."

The tribes who did settle take offense at such criticisms. 

It's "a direct insult to us as tribes," then-Inter-Tribal Fish Commission chairwoman Fidelia Andy told The Oregonian after the accord was announced in 2008. And it's still insulting, commission spokesman Charles Hudson says. "For the record," he adds, "Snake River dam breaching remains a component of all of our member tribes' salmon policies."

Beyond that, the tribal agreements were given a thorough airing with the public, interest groups, utilities and the Northwest congressional delegation, BPA's Milstein adds -- all part of the agency's determination to hold itself accountable.

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