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

Dams blasted at Twin Falls hearing

Politics and biology, a difficult mix

"To Idaho’s politicians, I’m outraged with you. I’m disgusted. I hear you mumble about fish friendly turbines, whatever that is, a contradiction in terms at best, or advocating more barging. Our endangered salmon don’t need a ride. They need to stay in the river, in a river that flows like a river."

Lynne Stone of Ketchum

Express Staff Writers

Endangered salmon draws a dam-angry crowd

Last Wednesday, about 140 people from all over Idaho and beyond converged on a hotel in Twin Falls to testify on two government documents about endangered salmon.

With its tongue-twister title—Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Report/Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)—the 4,300-page paper covers four years and $23 million worth of research by scientists, engineers and technicians on the problem of endangered salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest.

The other document, the so-called All-H Paper, reports specifically on the factors that affect the imperiled fish: habitat, harvesting, hatcheries and hydro-electric power. Nine federal agencies worked for about a year on the paper.

Beyond these two documents, federal officials said they were interested in gathering still more information from the public. Also, the National Environmental Policy Act requires public input on the studies before any major decisions are made.

"This is something for which we’d never be forgiven if we didn’t do well," the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Walla Walla District spokesman, Duane Meier, said in an interview about the lengthy, time consuming and expensive EIS. The Army Corps is the coordinator for the key document.

The Twin Falls hearing was the last of 15 that were held in Alaska, Montana, Washington, Oregon and Idaho since early February on salmon recovery in the Northwest.

It was also the best attended of any of the evening meetings. More than 700 people converged on the Weston Plaza Hotel for the session, which lasted until close to midnight. Approximately 141 of those people registered to address a panel of federal employees. They were restricted to three minutes each.

"There is certainly an unmistakable, topical interest around the region, based on the turnout at these meetings," Meier said.

The EIS contains four alternatives for saving the Northwest’s salmon, which have dwindled to near extinction in the past 50 years.

Recovery options are, in order of numbers for which they’re identified:

  • One, maintain the status quo.

  • Two, increase barging of young salmon around four lower Snake River dams on their downstream journeys.

  • Three, improve technology that helps fish pass through the dams.

  • Four, breach the four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington.

Meier pointed out that the study addresses downstream fish migration only. Fish ladders, which are in place for fish to migrate upstream, are working, he said.

For most Blaine County residents who spoke Wednesday, alternative four—breaching—is the only viable option.

Breaching is "logical, defensible and heavily supported by the broadest spectrum of knowledgeable people," Picabo farmer Lawrence Schoen told the federal panel. "Removing four lower Snake River dams provides the best chance we have of restoring Snake River salmon runs.

"Opponents refuse to accept this course of action—many for understandable personal reasons, others for ideology."

Corps spokeswoman Nola Conway, however, said such comments were off the mark.

While it is good to hear opinions, she said, the corps was looking for suggestions on issues the federal agency may have overlooked in the 4,300-page draft EIS.

"It’s not a vote," she said, "and it’s not an opinion poll."

With the month-long bout of public hearings concluded, Army Corps environmental resource planner Dave Dankel said in an interview at the hearing that the next step is to compile the thousands of comments and complete a revised draft EIS.

Such a document should be completed this summer, he said, adding, "As political as this is, who knows?"

Once a revised draft EIS is completed, another round of public hearings will be conducted. Distribution of a final EIS and a record of decision on the matter are not yet scheduled.

For many Idahoans, the issue boils down to breaching the dams versus not breaching them.

Breaching would require the approval of Congress.

According to Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson’s spokeswoman, Luci Willits, the Republican lawmaker is interested in looking at all alternatives before making a decision on how to vote.

Willits said in a telephone interview that many federal lawmakers are beginning to take interest in the topic, but she speculated that Congress will not look into the issue until all the information is in, including the Army Corps’ final EIS.

Breaching advocates have been blasting federal agencies for dragging their feet on the issue, saying that they’re studying the fish to death.

Anti breachers have said the other options laid out by the EIS will bring the fish back. What’s more, they contend, the economic ramifications of breaching are too much of a burden for the Northwest to pay.

Regardless of where people stood on the salmon issue last Wednesday, one fact was clear—the people of Idaho want their beloved salmon back.

Ketchum resident Lowie Graves recalled a time when she witnessed two sockeye salmon spawning in Valley Creek near Stanley.

"They were big and brave and beautiful," she said.

Lynne Stone, from Ketchum, wants the fish back, too, and she’s got fingers to point.

"To Idaho’s politicians, I’m outraged with you," she said. "I’m disgusted. I hear you mumble about fish friendly turbines, whatever that is, a contradiction in terms at best, or advocating more barging.

"Our endangered salmon don’t need a ride. They need to stay in the river, in a river that flows like a river."


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