Last Thursday, the fate of the Snake River salmon was weighed by some of the most influential voices in the debate at Spokane's Met Theater. An audience of more than 120 listened as 11 speakers addressed the controversial issue as part of Eastern Washington University's annual Public Affairs Symposium.
The big issue right now is whether to breach the four Snake River dams to allow better access to the spawning grounds and a smoother return trip to the ocean. And there was agreement that breaching those dams is not the silver bullet to save salmon. For one thing, it will not do the entire job. Salmon runs are at risk elsewhere in the Columbia drainage, and the Snake River runs face other risks. It was also agreed that any talk of breaching is only laying the groundwork for something that might happen well into the future, since the majority of our elected officials oppose breaching.
There was less agreement, however, about what should be done in the meantime. Approaches ranged from stopping all Washington and Oregon salmon fishing to aggressively advancing the government's current "Four H" program (improving habitat, managing harvest, expanding hatcheries and lessening the impact of hydropower) to even scaling back current measures.
The main speaker, William Dietrich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental reporter, formerly with the Seattle Times, saw scaling back the current efforts as the only sensible alternative to radical, but effective, action. That would at least be an honest recognition of failure. Meanwhile, critics of the salmon recovery effort, who were well represented at the forum, felt the risk to salmon is overstated and the scientific and economic cases for many of the current measures are weak.
In the end, it's clear that people know how to save the salmon, if they are willing to pay the price. But extinction is also an option, despite the fact that few are willing to admit it.
The Big Picture
The forum opened with what might be called an extended invocation from two religious perspectives. Richard Mullen of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe talked of his and other tribe's stories of fishing for salmon at Spokane Falls and in Latah Creek. Fr. Scott Coble of Gonzaga University, using Christian scripture, talked of how science reveals the Creator's intent in the logic of nature, as illustrated by the salmon's birth-death-birth cycle.
Next came Deitrich, who has written extensively on salmon recovery, including in his book on the Columbia River, Northwest Passage.
Dietrich challenged the crowd to "put up or shut up." One possible course he called "bold and decisive action." This would include stopping all salmon fishing, breaching the dams and taking any other measures that might work. Otherwise, Deitrich said, we might as well accept extinction and make the Columbia River a monument to the successes (and failures) of our civilization.
He saw no point to more tinkering of the kind he has seen in the past two decades. He cited the cost of such tinkering as $3.5 billion total and $130 million per year. Quite a sum, he pointed out, for continued salmon decline and frustration.
Short of Breaching
The afternoon's lead speaker was Will Stelle, Northwest Regional Administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). His words carried extra weight, because the choice of salmon recovery plans officially belongs to him. While offering different solutions, he pointed out that breaching would not solve the entire problem. There are 12 endangered Columbia River salmon runs, only four of which occur in the Snake River. And even the Snake River runs face hazards outside their four dams, starting with the Columbia's dams below the Snake.
Stelle described what he called "comprehensive, durable, extensive change" by using the government's Four H formula.
Washington state's representative to the Northwest Power Planning Council (the body that oversees the spending of that $130 million per year) is Tom Karier, and he, too, discussed simple, practical things that can be done. Keeping cattle from polluting salmon streams and destroying nesting gravel, and cleaning culverts and replacing screens, so adult salmon can return and juveniles are not flushed into irrigated fields. Karier also conveyed Governor Gary Locke's mandate to him to exhaust all other possibilities before turning to breaching as a solution.
Karier went on to liken salmon recovery to the now successful rescue of the bald eagle. The bald eagle has gone from 400 nesting pairs to more than 5,000. It took 32 years and the banning of DDT, which never produced the predicted agricultural disaster. Instead, farmers found acceptable substitutes, and the unsettling specter of the nation's symbol going extinct due to environmental causes was removed.
The rest of the conference addressed benefits and costs. There was the usual sparring over who had the truest facts and purest motives, but perhaps less than expected.
Attorney James Buchal and economist Darryll Olsen stuck up for those footing the bill for salmon recovery. Buchal is the attorney for the Columbia River Alliance, a Portland-based group dedicated to saving salmon "without removing dams and shutting down natural resource-based communities." Buchal has also represented Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers at hearings and has authored The Great Salmon Hoax. Olson heads the Pacific Northwest Project, a Kennewick-based consulting firm dealing with energy and natural resource issues.
Buchal questioned extracting dire predictions and draconian recommendations (like breaching) from NMFS data. Some of this data he displayed for the audience. Olsen cited substantial annual costs of breaching and other recovery measures. He also noted the existence of a salmon recovery industry. Recalling Deitrich's $130 million figure, he noted that costs to some agencies are revenues to others. This, Olson pointed out, makes the salmon recovery effort something those agencies do not necessarily wish to see come to an end.
The Sierra Club's Jim Baker and ECONorthwest economist Ed Whitelaw rejoined these comments. Baker cited extensive scientific opinion supporting breaching and rejecting alternatives like barging salmon around the dams. Whitelaw said breaching would produce net benefits rather than costs.
Audience discussion was lively, thoughtful and well informed. I got lucky and grabbed the mike in time to ask a deliberately provocative question: "The Congress has to fund breaching, and the regional delegation is uniformly opposed. Doesn't that make breaching a dead issue?"
The panel accepted my premise, at least for the near term. Deitrich responded by pointing out that building the dams once also had zero political support. Panel moderator Robert Herold also suggested building support for breaching will take considerable time. In addition, he noted it will require that the issue be transformed from one of regional significance to one of national stature.
Those who missed the event have a second chance. The panel taped an abbreviated version of the symposium to be aired on KSPS in late July.
"Both Sides of the River" airs on KSPS-TV, Spokane Ch. 7, at noon, Sunday, July 30, and at 9 pm, Monday, July 31.