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Save Our Wild Salmon

by Joseph Bogaard

Osprey-logoThe Pacific Northwest’s epic battle to balance competing natural resources — federal dams and endangered wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers — faces a critical juncture in the first half of 2011. At risk is nothing less than the heart and soul, the identity and culture, of the Pacific Northwest and its people. While big dams on the Elwha, White Salmon, and Rogue rivers have come out — or will soon — ongoing efforts to restore  140 miles of free-flowing water in the lower Snake River remain contentious, but very much in play. In what could be the most significant round of litigation for Columbia/Snake River salmon and the people and communities that rely on them, United States District Court Judge James Redden is expected to rule this spring about whether the federal government’s latest salmon plan for the Columbia and Snake Rivers passes legal muster.

Like the timber industry and spotted owl, this is a classic natural resource battle between powerful entrenched interests resisting changes to a technology and culture — in this case hydroelectric dams that were constructed in last century. While the first Columbia River basin dams were built way back in the 19th century, it was not until the Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal that the federal government really teamed up with industrial interests to transform the free-flowing, salmon-rich Columbia and Snake rivers into a series of slackwater reservoirs and dams to electrify a Northwest that was at the time still largely in the dark. The creation of abundant power has drawn people and businesses to the region ever since.

In hindsight, it is easy to see how industrial momentum leads to overreach, especially when the largesse of federal taxpayers makes it all so simple. Consider the timber industry. With its infrastructure designed for the biggest trees, a mindset to maximize profit, and cozy political relations, the timber barons saw no reason why they shouldn’t have access to every last ancient tree they could get their chainsaws on — people, owls, and ecology be damned. Similarly, once they got started, Northwest dam boosters saw no reason why there shouldn’t be dams on every river, regardless of rapidly disappearing salmon, among other things. Our collective sense of a balance in the Columbia basin became distorted and lost during the last century and led inevitably to poor decision-making.

The four lower Snake River dams is a case in point. They were the last federal dams constructed in the Columbia basin. For several decades, even the US Army Corps of Engineers resisted building them because they didn’t pencil out economically. It took a stiff congressional kick in the pants - not a change in the underlying costs and benefits — that finally forced them to act.

The dams were, in fact, very controversial in their day. Similar projects that were slated for construction immediately after their completion, like Asotin Dam upstream from Lewiston, Idaho, never got off the ground. After our nation’s 200-plus year spasm of dam building, people began to say “enough.” Today, it is certain that these high-cost, low-value salmon-killing dams would never be built. The limited benefits that they do provide would be met — and still can be met — with efficient and effective alternatives. A scarcity has increased the value of salmon and fish and wildlife and free-flowing rivers, and societal priorities have changed. But these four dams are here now, and our nation faces a critical decision about whether they stay. It’s not too late to correct this costly mistake.
 
 
 
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