To breach or not to breach

Salmon advocates stand up for tearing down dams

  • Potlatch Corp. millworker Marvin Dugger

    Barry Kough/Lewiston Morning Tribune

CLARKSTON, Wash. - They billed it as "D-day," the day when the people of the Lewiston Clarkston Valley would rise up and show their overwhelming support for keeping four federal dams on the lower Snake River.

But despite an aggressive anti-breaching advertising campaign and a turnout of 1,500 to 2,000 people, most of those who testified here at the Feb. 10 meeting on salmon and steelhead recovery said they supported breaching the dams to save the fish.

At earlier meetings hosted in Portland and Spokane by nine federal agencies, most speakers backed an Army Corps alternative that would free the Snake River by removing earthen sections of Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams. Scientists say that a faster, dam-free river will increase the survival of migrating salmon and steelhead, especially young smolts heading to the Pacific Ocean (HCN, 12/20/99: Unleashing the Snake).

But response in this community, which would be hit hardest by dam breaching, was expected to be radically different. Conservation groups such as Idaho Rivers United conceded they would likely lose the numbers game.

By the time the meetings began at noon, however, breachers dominated the front of a line at the Lewis and Clark Convention center and tilted public testimony in favor of breaching. During the evening session, which lasted until 12:30 a.m., dam supporters made a stronger showing, though breaching advocates continued to hold their own.

"The dam supporters have been telling the press and the public that no one in these communities wants to breach the dams," said Jim Baker, a Sierra Club staffer who lives outside Pullman, Wash. "We showed they were wrong. Basically, our people cared more about saving the salmon than our opponents cared about keeping the dams."

Some Lewiston, Idaho, residents charged that environmental groups stacked the witness stand. Only 60 of the 150 people signed up for the afternoon session got to speak, and many of them were pro-breachers.

"I'm really angry. I mean really, really angry," said Marvin Dugger, a Potlatch Corp. employee and leader of the save-the-dams campaign in Lewiston. "This meeting did not reflect the sentiment of the area." Potlatch ships about one-third of its paper and fiber products down the Snake River on barges.

A difficult debate

Breachers were buoyed by the turnout of Nez Perce tribal members, fishing and rafting guides and residents of the university towns of Moscow and Pullman. They told members of the federal caucus that saving the fish is more important than any economic hardships that might be unleashed if the dams are removed. They also said sport fishing could fuel the region's economy.

"This is deeper than economics," said Kirk Barnum, a fishing guide from Riggins, Idaho. "It's about keeping one of the earth's creatures from extinction."

Tribal members stressed the central role that salmon play in their culture and said treaties that promise them the right to fish must be honored. "The Nez Perce people will not accept extinction as the inevitable price of progress," said James Holt, a member of the tribe's executive committee.

Breaching opponents insisted the dams could not be blamed for sharp salmon and steelhead declines, pointing instead to predators, commercial and tribal fishing and poor ocean conditions. They said removing the dams would devastate the local and regional economy that was built on barge transportation and cheap electric rates.

Larry Lodge, one of more than 2,000 people employed by Potlatch Corp. in Lewiston, said the science that supports breaching is uncertain. Biologists who back breaching rely on conditional terms like "maybe, we believe and we think," he said. "Those really aren't good enough for us." Lodge and others advocated a moratorium on fishing before dams would be removed.

Many of those who spoke in favor of removing the dams called on the Corps to include mitigation measures for wheat farmers and others who use the series of reservoirs to barge their products down the Snake. Tom Stuart of Idaho Rivers United said the region needs and deserves investment in its highway system. He suggested the expansion of Highway 12 to four lanes west of Clarkston, enabling grain that currently rides to Portland on barges to travel by truck.

The Corps and the other federal agencies have scheduled several other hearings in the region, including one in Pasco, where dam supporters are expected to make a strong showing, and one in Seattle, where pro-breachers should have the upper hand.

Closing in on a decision

The Corps is considering four alternatives to save sockeye salmon, steelhead and spring, summer and fall chinook and is expected to produce a final environmental impact statement sometime in the year 2001. Other federal agencies are coordinating efforts to address the so-called four H's - habitat, harvest, hatcheries and hydropower - in a document known as the "all H's paper." This document will eventually become the recovery plan for all endangered stocks of Columbia basin salmon and steelhead.

The more pressing deadline is for the upcoming fish-migration season. The National Marine Fisheries Service must sign by May a new biological opinion on whether the operations of the federal hydropower system jeopardize the endangered fish.

In years past, the agency has concluded that the dams did not jeopardize the fish because of mitigation measures, including the Army Corps' current practice of barging young salmon around the Snake River dams. Many scientists, tribal leaders and fishing and environmental groups say barging has done little or nothing to help dwindling salmon runs recover.

Even if the agencies recommend dismantling the dams, Congress would have to authorize such an action. So far, no Northwest politician, save Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, has spoken of dam breaching as a viable option.

Salmon supporters say the hearings are their chance to change political reality.

"The public has heard mixed messages up to this point - like we can keep the dams and save the salmon," says Jim Baker. "This is our chance to show them that there is really only one choice. Either we take the dams down or we lose the fish."

Eric Barker reports for the Lewiston Morning Tribune in Lewiston, Idaho.


  • Frank Carroll, Potlatch Corp., 208/799-1751;
  • Scott Bosse, Idaho Rivers United, 208/841-5492.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Eric Barker

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