When a longtime consultant for the hydropower industry suddenly announced that four dams in Washington needed to be breached to save Idaho’s salmon, he shook the region.
For decades, Don Chapman, the "guru" of fisheries
biologists, had staunchly defended technological fixes for the
imperiled fish, recommending hauling salmon past the dams from
their spawning grounds to the Pacific Ocean.
however, Chapman changed his mind about breaching the four lower
Snake River dams. He cited new scientific evidence showing that the
Columbia River is warming. Warmer water will reduce the habitat
available for spawning, he said, and even cause the North Pacific,
where the fish mature, to lose much of its productivity.
It’s a dramatic turnaround, and Chapman’s former
students at the University of Idaho say it is comparable to the one
in the Star Wars saga: A hero rises, but falls,
as Darth Vader did; then, when he’s needed most, he turns
away from the dark side to save the day.
When he was a
professor, they say, Chapman instilled his students with a sense of
idealism, encouraging them to be advocates for fish and their
habitat. In the 1960s and ’70s, many of them went on to
influential jobs managing salmon and steelhead.
our knight in shining armor," says Steve Pettit, now a retired
Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist.
1979, after a stint helping native people in Tanzania and Colombia
to develop sustainable fisheries, Chapman left the university to
become a fisheries consultant for the Northwest’s electric
Some of his former students, now
fisheries managers in Oregon and Idaho, were pushing hydroelectric
dam operators to make eight dams between the Pacific and Idaho less
deadly for imperiled salmon. Dam operators collected young salmon
as they reached the dams, loading the fish into trucks and barges
and then shipping them downriver to the estuary below Bonneville
Dam, near Portland.
It wasn’t enough, said state
and tribal biologists; the fish were still in danger of going
extinct. Chapman, however, defended the system. And he was well
paid for doing so.
His former students said they’d
find themselves sitting in court, testifying under cross
examination from a utility attorney. Whispering into the
lawyer’s ear would be Chapman, providing just the right
question that illuminated the weakness or uncertainty of the
"It was pretty intimidating,"
said Frank Young, fish and wildlife coordinator for the Columbia
Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority. "You can’t help but feel
In 1999, the Idaho Section of the American
Fisheries Society voted overwhelmingly that breaching the four dams
on the lower Snake was the best — and perhaps the only
— way to save the endangered salmon that spawned upstream.
Chapman was among the small minority who refused to go along.
"I know what they say — ‘He’s gone over
to the dark side,’ " Chapman said at the time. "I’m
straight with myself, straight in my mind that I’ve acted
Fast forward to 2005; Chapman has all
but retired. He continues to write, co-authoring a recent book for
the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science.
Recently, he filed a statement on behalf of the public
utilities, critical of Judge James Redden’s plan to spill
additional water over the dams this summer to help fall chinook
migrate. Barging the fish would be safer, Chapman still believes,
but Redden, who overruled the Bush administration’s salmon
plan, disagreed (HCN, 6/13/05: For salmon, a crucial moment of
Then came the news about the warming river.
Chapman decided that it changed everything. All the old arguments
about the fish were overwhelmed, he said. He hopes that the new
evidence will spark renewed debate among other scientists on all
sides of the argument.
With his public reversal, Chapman
acknowledges he’s moving out of the scientific realm and into
the political arena, where there’s never been much support
for breaching the dams.
"After 50 years in fisheries, I
take that privilege," he said.
Chapman reminds us of
something that’s often forgotten nowadays. Science
isn’t about accepting the majority opinion; it’s about
peer review and research. Scientists defend their hypotheses with
data, not with emotion.
But scientists, like the rest of
us, also have values. And in the end, our values will influence our
decisions, as a society, to save the salmon — or save the