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Know the West

'The science pushed me'


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Jim Baker lives in the rolling wheat country outside Pullman, Wash. For the past seven years, he has been the Sierra Club's point man on Columbia River salmon.

"I was one of those conservationists who had to be dragged kicking and to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept breaching. I knew things would get nutty, and they have. Polarized politics is not where good policy is made, but the science pushed me.

"In 1996, an independent scientific study came out that talked about free-flowing rivers. That report turned my head around. Before, we thought that fish would be OK if we could just improve the conditions for juveniles. But this talked about the problems dams pose for adult passage, food chains, water temperature. There was no way to knife through this Gordian knot without cutting through the dams.

"The politics look bleak now, but I have hope. I speak to groups of farmers at grange meetings to tell them why the dams hurt salmon and how farmers can survive without (dams). Things can get tense. You remember how you felt as a freshman in high school? Well, I start out with some humor to break the ice: I tell them that I'm not a convicted televangelist and I don't know a woman named Tammy Faye. Usually some big rawboned guy will come up afterwards, slap me on the back and say, "Boy, you sure got guts coming here."

"I think breaching can happen. The spotted owl conflict looked like a no-winner for years, but then things turned around in a hurry. Same with Elwha Dam: In 1990, not one member of the Washington delegation supported removing the dams. Most publicly opposed it. By the end of 1992, every member except one supported it and sponsored the legislation for the dam's removal - even Slade Gorton.

"Politics that look brutal now can look good in a relatively short time, especally if you can convince utilities and people that restoration can be a big plus for the economy."