by Idaho Statesman Editors
You don't foster negotiation by telling people what you refuse to talk about.
Yet that's what Idaho's current governor -- and perhaps its next governor -- want to do.
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter, a candidate to succeed Kempthorne in 2007, say the Northwest needs to negotiate a plan to save salmon. But they say breaching four dams on the lower Snake River should be taken off the table before talks even start.
Ruling out ideas will not encourage people to talk about saving Idaho's wild salmon -- still struggling after more than a decade on the federal government's endangered species list. If anything, this dooms our region to continued lawsuits that leave both our fish and our economy in limbo.
In a response to a Statesman questionnaire, Kempthorne and Otter restate their opposition to removing portions of four lower Snake River dams in Washington state, a plan we have supported since 1997. Their opposition is neither surprising nor unique. While many scientists believe breaching may be the only way to save Idaho salmon, the idea has no significant political support in the Northwest.
Opposing breaching is one thing. But the Northwest needs an open discussion about salmon, dams and the economy -- and since we're talking about Idaho's wild salmon, the governor ought to bring all ideas and all interest groups to the table. Kempthorne and Otter don't want to do that.
Discussing breaching or the release of more Idaho water are "recipes for continued stalemate," says Otter. Breaching cannot be a "starting point" for discussion, says Kempthorne, who plans to step down.
It's bad enough that both suggest a fundamentally flawed way to begin a discussion. Kempthorne bases his stance on faulty science. "It is hard to advocate breaching with the record returns we've seen in recent years and fishermen on the river in Salmon, Idaho for the first time in 30 years."
Kempthorne is right; the 2001 chinook salmon counts at Lower Granite Dam set a record for the dam, built in 1975. But as of Thursday, chinook returns through Lower Granite are down nearly 83 percent from 2001. Chinook fishing returned to Salmon and Challis for the first time since 1978, but only because "surplus" hatchery fish returned to the Department of Fish and Game's Pahsimeroi hatchery.
Otter believes salmon recovery must be considered in a broader context than just hydro, spokesman Mark Warbis said. Meanwhile, Kempthorne is on the right track, says his attorney, David Hensley. The season on the Upper Salmon River shows the region can recover fish without focusing only on altering the hydroelectric system. And he says it's appropriate to rule out ideas such as dam breaching, as the Northwest's governors did when they started discussing salmon recovery five years ago. "Everybody has nonstarters when you start a negotiation," Hensley said.
But when you dismiss ideas as "nonstarters" -- such as breaching, supported by scientists, tribal leaders and fish advocates -- you give these groups no incentive to talk.
At least Rep. Mike Simpson and Sen. Mike Crapo seem to understand that -- and based on their work trying to negotiate Idaho wilderness bills, that comes as no surprise.
Simpson, who has been working on a Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill, says it's appropriate to discuss all the issues related to salmon. Crapo, who has been working on an Owyhees wilderness bill, understands what it would take to bring together water users, utilities, shippers, fish advocates and tribal leaders from across the Northwest. "Most people will support negotiations when they know they have had a real opportunity to be heard and they can see that the interests they feel most strongly about have been fairly treated."
It's politically easy to voice support for negotiation, but tougher and riskier to embrace the honest, delicate discussions that are required. Kempthorne and Otter prefer the easy path.
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