The former Interior Secretary in the Clinton Administration has prepared a list of dams to remove, and high on his list are four in the 140-mile stretch of the Snake River running from Lewiston to Tri-Cities: Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Granite and Lower Monumental.
In speeches in Spokane and Portland in early October, Babbitt renewed his call to breach the lower Snake River dams. Actually, although he makes no bones about what he'd like to see happen, it's more accurate to say Babbitt is urging people in the Northwest to sit down and at least talk about breaching the lower Snake dams.
"We are coming up to, I think, a major decision point on the future of the Snake River," he told The Inlander back in October. "We are spending something like $700 million a year [on salmon restoration efforts] and we ain't got anything to show for it."
The coho in the Snake are extinct, he says, and the sockeye nearly so. In much of the last decade, only enough returning sockeye have thrashed into the fish weir into Redfish Lake each year to be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Wild spring/summer chinook are on a steady downward trend, Babbitt says.
"If we keep spending hundreds of millions of dollars and we don't get results, there is going to be a movement: Let's give up. We don't need salmon in the Northwest," Babbitt says.
Such a conclusion would make the late Idaho Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth laugh from beyond the grave. Chenoweth, attending an "endangered species barbecue" with other Idaho Republicans in the mid-1990s, was famous for saying salmon were certainly not endangered if you could find them in cans in any grocery store.
Sure, we can all laugh, but Babbitt thinks Chenoweth's side is winning, that spending $700 million a year to save salmon that isn't saving salmon is cynical and deliberate. And there's nothing funny about that, he says.
"Scientists are morally depressed. They know we are losing the battle," he says. "We are at a decision point where people might say we don't need the salmon -- let them all go. If that's the public's mood, so be it."
Babbitt's renewed call for breaching the lower Snake River dams -- and the almost instant fierce opposition -- raises a host of fascinating questions. There are at least a year's worth of them worth digging into, and The Inlander intends to revisit the dam-breaching issue throughout 2007.
Can we save the wild salmon? On the other hand, if there are enough hatchery fish and farmed fish to buy in the grocery, then what difference would it make?
Do these four dams really add to the hydropower grid? Do they help with flood control? Or do they just create navigable slackwater all the way to
Is Lewiston really a seaport? (No, really.)
Can wheat farmers ship by means other than barges? Or are they tied to this great whale of a soft white winter wheat commodity market the way Ahab was bound to Moby Dick? What does this portend for switching area acreage over to bio-fuel production?
Will an Eastern Washington politician ever have the chops to convene a meeting on dam breaching?
If the salmon are disappearing - even if the dams are killing nine of 10 -- should we allow commercial salmon fishing out in the oceans?
Babbitt isn't about to let these questions pass without counter-argument, and he is making a powerful pitch that breaching the dams will not only save wild salmon, but will also create a stronger regional economy, come out even in electrical power generation and will even be good for wheat farmers who rely on the river to ship crops overseas.
His points are drawn from a recently released study, Revenue Stream, compiled by the environmental group Save Our Wild Salmon and affiliated groups including the Northwest Sportsfishing Industry Association, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisheries Associations, American Rivers and the Northwest Energy Coalition.
Reaction has been predictable, with a wave of op-ed pieces by conservationists in Northwest newspapers praising Revenue Stream, followed by a wave of op-ed pieces from business interests roundly thrashing it.
And in truth there is little new in the renewed dam breaching debate... just a deeper sense of urgency.
Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, attended the lunch in Portland where Babbitt and former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber spoke about wild salmon and free-running rivers.
"I left feeling like I just had lunch in Camelot," she says.
Against every Camelot, of course, is arrayed a dark wizard, and Idaho's senior Republican Sen. Larry Craig willingly assumes that mantle. On his way to a Christmas party in Idaho last month he said this: "When Bruce Babbitt was Secretary of the Interior and talked about [breaching], I said I would forgo one dam of the four if he would stand in front of it when he pushed the plunger."
"I wanted him to know how silly we Northwesterners thought his idea was," Craig says.
Like the Pyramids
But which is the sillier idea -- that the dams should come out? Or that dams can never come out?
Babbitt is often harshly criticized as a kind of carpetbagger: a man who carries his sledgehammer around the country, always ready to smash some dam or other to smithereens.
"And I always wonder what ... evokes such a reaction? We routinely demolish buildings that have served their purpose or when there is a better use for the land. Why not dams?" Babbitt writes in his essay, "A River Runs Against It." He continues, "For whatever reason, we view dams as akin to the pyramids of Egypt -- a permanent part of the landscape, timeless monuments to our civilization and technology."
Many of the biggest dams are indeed built as if the pharaohs decreed them, and have delivered godlike improvements -- irrigation water to create farms in the channeled scablands, electric light, relief from floods.
The four lower Snake River dams, the last major dams built in the Columbia River Basin, do almost none of those things. They are more a monument to one man's stubborn obsession to make Lewiston, Idaho, a seaport.
"It was really one person who dogged those projects from the '30s," says Bert Bowler, native fisheries director for Idaho Rivers United. That man was Herbert G. West, Bowler says, who insisted the dams would bring prosperity.
"But the economic boom never came. Lewiston isn't doing gangbusters," Bowler says.
Bowler spent a decade in Lewiston during his 29-year career as a biologist and fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game -- an organization not noted for its green leanings.
For the past five years, Bowler has been with the conservationist group Idaho Rivers United and is considered one of the go-to guys for anyone seeking good intel on salmon and dams.
For him, the career move was simple.
"You have these fish. A spring chinook, let's say, migrates 900 miles and climbs 6,000 feet. No fish does that anywhere else in the world," Bowler says.
These are the legacy fish of the Snake River basin, he says; powerful, muscled, high-octane fish that were the backbone of an entire ecosystem and central to 10,000 years of native culture.
They're not going to go away on his watch, Bowler says. "It's a myth that people want to turn the clock back to 1806. When it comes to the recovery of these fish, just going back to the 1950s' levels would be considered a success."
There were an estimated 10,000 wild spring/summer chinook in the Snake in 2006, Bowler says. Half a century ago, there were 100,000.
But the stakes are high, and the battle lines rigid.
Read Smith is a progressive, even liberal, wheat farmer from St. John. He's the one other farmers in town call a Democrat. But even he says the dams should stay as they are.
"When your neighbors are going broke all around and now the bank is calling you -- you don't give a damn about salmon," Smith says.
The farm economy across the Northwest is in tough shape, Smith says, and until it improves, he doesn't expect farmers will be willing to step into the unknown and support dam breaching.
Northwest novelist David James Duncan (The River Why, The Brothers K) has written an essay to try and help Save Our Wild Salmon and other groups bridge the divide between farmers and the commercial fishing industry. In his essay, he points out that the miracle during the Sermon on the Mount involved both loaves and fishes.
"The neighbors the farmers are forgetting are the fishing families all the way down to Astoria. The neighbors the farmers are forgetting are the tribes who've been screwed for generations," Duncan says. The "forgotten" neighbors include even the resident orca pods in Puget Sound, which have fewer salmon running past the San Juan Islands to eat.
There are voices upon voices running this river. In the coming months, we'll listen.
This is the first in a series of stories we'll publish about
the dams and the Eastern Washington economy.