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For the week of Mar. 15 through Mar. 21, 2000

Fish follies

The questionable fate of 1,800 testimonies


"[The Nez Perce] fed Lewis and Clark when they were starving. Now it’s time to return the favor. If we had known this was going to happen, Lewis and Clark would never have made it."

Timothy Pinkham, Nez Perce nation


By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer

Blaine County spoke with a clear voice last Wednesday when more than two dozen Wood River Valley residents supported dam breaching at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ public hearing in Twin Falls. But judging by statements made by Army Corps representatives, most of them may as well not have bothered.

Even though Lt. Col. William Bulen, speaking to the crowd at the beginning of the hearing, said, "This is not an attempt at consensus or to take a vote," most people talked about the things they were for or against. Or they chastised the government officials.

The plight of the fish is a complex issue, and the hearing was just one of 15 throughout the Pacific Northwest that took place through March 9. By the end of the final hearing in Petersburg, Alaska, a panel of eight representatives from the Army Corps, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Reclamation and other federal agencies had collected testimony from 1,800 citizens.

Army Corps officer Bulen, a former Ranger, interviewed in the lobby during an intermission at the Twin Falls hearing, shed some insight on the fate of all that data.

Lt. Col. William Bulen

Lt. Col. William Bulen, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ hearing coordinator, has a mammoth task sorting through the salmon testimony.

 

Reporter: Colonel, could you tell me what you plan on doing with the testimony you’ve heard tonight?

Bulen: Well, we’re here to collect new information tonight. We won’t be paying any attention to the opinions offered by people.

Reporter: Yes, but what will you actually do with the new information?

Bulen: As you can see, we’ve got a court reporter, and later we’ll be compiling the testimony into different subject areas, so we can give it our full consideration.

Reporter: I guess what I was trying to get at was how tonight’s information will actually be useful to you. After you compile it into subject areas, then what?

Bulen: Well, we’re trying to find out if we can learn anything new from the public that our researchers haven’t discovered yet.

Reporter: So, have you learned anything new tonight?

Bulen: No. Now, I’ve got to get back inside.

That was after 20 people had testified.

The snippets of conversation overheard from the 500 or so people milling around display booths in the lobby indicated that many believed their representatives had already made up their minds on the salmon issue and would carry their decisions to Congress, which has the final say on whether four dams in the lower Snake River should be decommissioned in the name of fish.

A few in the milling crowd suggested the hearings were a stall tactic, though the reason for the alleged stalling was always a little hazy.

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Early in the afternoon, a bus had left Blaine County with about 35 dam-breaching advocates, mostly Wood River Valley members of the Idaho Conservation League.

While the bus hurtled south towards Twin Falls, environmental activist Ann Christiansen warmed up the riders over a public-address system.

Christiansen admonished the them to get up and speak at the hearings, even if only to say they support dam breaching.

"They’re keeping score!" Christiansen said. "We need numbers."

"Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" chanted one enthusiastic salmon lover.

At the hearing, Timothy Pinkham, a member of the Nez Perce tribe, spoke on behalf of future generations of Nez Perce children.

"[The Nez Perce] fed Lewis and Clark when they were starving," he said. "Now it’s time to return the favor. If we had known this was going to happen, Lewis and Clark would never have made it."

Blaine County resident Thia Konig said she was ashamed of the plight of the salmon, and embarrassed by efforts to transport migrating fish over land because rivers have been dammed to ease navigation by boats.

"This is ridiculous," she said. "Right now, we have grain in the river and fish in the trucks."

Chris Mendenhall, of Twin Falls, warned the federal officials, "At this moment, we cannot let the environmental zealots and news media push for dam breaching."

Dile Monson, of Twin Falls, declared, "Ultimately, dams may be the saviors of our salmon population. How else would we be able to tag salmon and know they’re being decimated?"

And so it went.

Late in the evening, public information officer Nola Conway answered questions at the Army Corps of Engineers’ booth. During an interview, she said she agreed with Lt. Col. Bulen that researchers probably couldn’t use most of the testimony given that night.

But there was one man from Blaine County who offered something researchers had not yet considered, she said.

Thad Farnham, a building contractor, said he "finds it unbelievable that the building industry hasn’t…weighed in on the breaching issue."

Farnham predicted a "huge boom" in building when the fish return.

 

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